What is real? What is true?

Pain. A spotlight. © Charles Thibo

Bela Bartok is a challenge. His music – I love it. But to write about it… It took me a long time to warm up to his language, but once I had summoned the courage to explore his works in detail, I was greatly rewarded. The String Quartets recorded by the Emerson String Quartet – what a fascinating universe! Bartok is unique in his style and perhaps in his ambitions as a composer. Transcending the principles of the Vienna classics era, blending the teachings of the past, serialism* included, with folk music elements and composing principles from different ethnic backgrounds, forging thus a contemporary music style that compares to no other – how daring! Chapeau.

Bartok’s String Quartet No. 5, Sz. 102 is a challenge too. Fasten seat belts, we are in for one helluva ride. The first movement is disturbing, distressing even. The following adagio gives comfort and hope until pain breaks the momentary relief. The second movement finishes suspended in the air – a question. What now?

A fake world with fake news

The scherzo starts on a distraction, a diversion. A question, you said? No, no, nobody is questioning anything. Everything is fine. At least we pretend it is. Alternative facts. But unfortunately reality catches up with us, an unpleasant reality we have to acknowledge. There are moments of beauty, of love and harmony, but is this real? Is this true? Or is it a fake world with fake news, dishonest questions and dishonest answers? Whom can we trust?

The fourth movement, the andante, has a menacing subtone. Tagadagada – like a machine gun. Don’t ask questions! Don’t look for any truth beyond what you are told. Blend in with the masses. Become invisible or a least grey. And obey Big Brother. Wait, what is this? A powerful voice full of warmth, gentleness momentarily silencing the voice of the dark side. How fragile and endangered it is! Darkness and light – and endless struggle.

The finale introduces a simple question and gets cacophonic answers, insisting, contradictory. We are lost, without orientation, our anxiety is mounting – a brutal dénouement is looming. But wait, Bartok comes up with a surprising parenthesis, soft, joyful, witty, followed by dissenting voices again, another parenthesis pops up, ironic, mocking – the artist’s protest? And all of a sudden the piece stops.

Fragmentation and counterpoint

Elementary cells are the building blocks of the piece, every theme can be broken up in smaller figures: a rhythm, an interval, a melody fragment, says the French Bartok biographer Claire Delamarche. Compositional techniques related to the Baroque counterpoint are abundant, along with elements borrowed from Romanian, Slovak and Bulgarian folk music.

Bartok wrote this quartet in 1934, a year after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. It had been commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague-Coolidge, patron of many European composers: Ravel, Schönberg, Stravinsky, Britten etc. In Hungary, Bartok’s home country, the Arrow Cross, a political movement aligned with Hitler’s Nazi party, was gaining more and more followers. Bartok had seen the writing on the wall: darkness against light. The struggle continues.

© Charles Thibo

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