Sheet Music Review: Henle Releases Editions of Bartók’s String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2

His six string quartets show the range and variety of his new style, from its formative stages to his consummate artistic development over decades

By Mary Nemet | From the May-June 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

Béla Bartók (1881–1945) traveled far and wide on foot and by horse and cart with bulky recording equipment in his quest to collect and catalog folk songs. They were a far cry from the traditional harmony he had learned at the Budapest Academy. Also aware of Schoenberg’s atonal music and Stravinsky’s new works, he immersed himself in folk music, which led to his own type of avant-garde. His six string quartets show the range and variety of his new style, from its formative stages to his consummate artistic development over decades.


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Béla Bartók: String Quartet Nos. 1 & 2, G. Henle Verlag
Béla Bartók: String Quartet No. 1, G. Henle Verlag, $30.95 each (scores); $17.95 each (parts) 

In the first quartet, of 1909, one still hears echoes of Strauss, Brahms, and Reger, but also Bartók’s burgeoning free approach to tonality, with traces of whole-tone scales attributable to Debussy, whom he admired. The Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet (later known as the Hungarian Quartet) played the premiere. Its three movements are played without pause, opening with a slow lamentation that is inspired by his unrequited love for violinist Stefi Geyer, with melodies related to the violin concerto written for her. The two following movements are faster, with a powerful rhythmic drive and more folkloric in style, hinting at his later oeuvres.

Bartok’s second quartet, Op. 17, was penned between 1915 and 1918, with long interruptions due to war. Borders were closed, which put an end to his ethnomusicological expeditions. After many years devoted to collecting folk music as far away as Algeria, this quartet is testimony to his research trips, especially in the middle movement, Allegro molto capriccioso, with its riotous melody and drumbeat rhythms embodying the essence of Algerian and Hungarian folk music. It also reflects those years of strife and privations in its brooding atmosphere and is imbued with tragedy.

As late as the 1940s, Bartók made changes in his personal score that had never before appeared in print. These are taken into account here by Bartók scholar László Somfai. Jointly published by Henle and Editio Musica Budapest Zeneműkiadó and edited by Somfai and Zsombor Németh, these new editions are based on the Bartók Complete Critical Edition, edited by the Bartók Archives in Budapest. Their extensive preface and critical commentary highlight the many complex editorial challenges involved in producing these admirable publications.