Bartók made the first sketches for his First String Quartet in 1907, did most of the composition in 1908, and completed the quartet on January 27, 1909, but the music had to wait over a year for its premiere at the “Bartók evening” in March 1910. Any composer who sets out to write a string quartet is inevitably aware of the thunder behind him, of the magnificent literature created for this most demanding of forms. When Beethoven composed his first set of string quartets, Opus 18, in the last years of the eighteenth century, he was quite aware of the example of Haydn (who was still composing string quartets at that time) and of Mozart — the young Beethoven copied out movements from Mozart’s quartets as a way of studying them. A century later, Bartók too was aware of the example of the past, and many have noted that in his First Quartet Bartók chose as his model one of the towering masterpieces of the form, Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Opus 131. Both quartets begin with a long, slow contrapuntal movement that opens with the sound of the two violins alone, both show a similar concentration of thematic material, both quartets are performed without breaks between their movements, both finales recall themes that had been introduced earlier, and both end with three massive, stinging chords.
Yet Bartók’s First Quartet does not sound like Beethoven, nor was he trying to write a Beethoven-like quartet. Instead, Bartók took as a very general model a quartet that he deeply admired and then used that model as the starting point to write music that is very much his own. If the First Quartet does not have the distinct personality of Bartók’s later essays in this form, it nevertheless shows a 27-year-old composer in complete command of the form — there have been very few first string quartets that speak with such confidence.
Bartók’s mastery is evident in many ways in the First Quartet. It is in three movements, rather than the traditional four, these movements are played without pause, and there are subtle relationships between those three movements. From the beginning, Bartók was quite willing to re-imagine quartet form (of his six quartets, only the last is in four movements, and even that is a highly modified structure). Immediately striking to anyone who hears (or plays!) this music is how difficult it is — from the first moments of the First Quartet, Bartók’s quartets require virtuoso performers who are then pushed to the limits of their technique. Bartók did not play a stringed instrument, yet his command of those instruments appears to have been instinctual. If some of the writing does not seem at first idiomatic (in that sense that it does not conform to “traditional” string-writing), that writing nevertheless makes sense on its own terms and is well suited to the instruments, provided they are in the hands of supremely capable players. Finally, one of the features of Bartók’s mature style already present in the First Quartet is his assured handling of motivic development. Ideas that first appear as only a tentative few notes will gradually yield unsuspected possibilities as they evolve across the span of a complete work.
The First Quartet gets faster and faster as it proceeds. The music moves from a very slow opening movement through a second movement marked Allegretto and on to a very fast finale that grows even faster in its closing moments. Simply as a musical journey, this quartet offers a very exciting ride. It gets off to quite a subdued start, however. The Lento opens with the two violins in close canon, and their falling figure will give shape to much of the thematic figure that follows. Here and throughout this movement Bartók carefully specifies molto espressivo — this closely argued music is expressive indeed. Cello and viola also enter in canon, and this ternary-form movement rises to a resounding climax before the viola introduces the central episode with a chiseled theme marked molto appassionato, rubato. The reprise of the opening canon is truncated, though this too rises to a grand climax before falling away to the quiet close.
Bartók proceeds without pause into the second movement. A duet for viola and cello and another for the two violins suggest another fundamental shape, and the movement takes wing at the ensuing Allegretto. The first violin’s first three notes here take their shape from the very opening of the Lento, but now these three notes become the thematic cell of a very active movement. Some have been tempted to call this movement, in 3/4, a waltz, but the music never settles comfortably into a waltz-rhythm, and soon the cello’s firm pizzicato pattern introduces a second episode. After all its energy, this movement reaches a quiet close that Bartók marks dolce, and he goes right on to the Introduzione of the finale. Here the cello has a free solo (Bartók marks it Rubato) of cadenza-like character, and the music leaps ahead on the second violin’s repeated E’s. Molto vivace, instructs Bartók, and he means it: this will be a finale filled with scalding energy. In unison, viola and cello sound the main theme (adapted from the main theme of the second movement), and off the music goes. For all its length and variety, the finale is in sonata form, with a second theme, a recurring Adagio episode, and a lengthy fugue whose subject is derived from what we now recognize as the quartet’s fundamental shape. As he nears the conclusion, Bartók pushes the tempo steadily forward, and his First String Quartet hurtles to its three massive final chords.
The initial concerts of the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet encouraged Bartók and Kodály, who envisioned a renaissance of contemporary Hungarian music. A year later, in April 1911, they created a New Hungarian Music Society, which they hoped would sponsor an orchestra committed to playing new music by Hungarian composers and helping create an open, receptive audience for such music. Those hopes were quickly dashed. The Society met with one obstacle after another, the orchestra was never created, and Bartók became discouraged about musical life in Hungary in general and about his own prospects as a composer in particular. Despite the high hopes of Bartók and Kodály, the March 1910 concerts that marked “the double birthday of modern Hungarian music” had proven a stillbirth.