The class was probably named something like "Contemporary Music Analysis." The teacher was Homer Keller, a composer and fantastic communicator.
I was in love with a girl who played oboe and composed. I tried so hard to concentrate and pay attention -- but I'm quite sure I missed a lot of good stuff while I was thinking about this beautiful girl and about something that would magically happen four years later -- but that's another story!!
Shortly after man first set foot on the moon, I took a giant step of my own.
As we settled into our chairs, Keller passed out copies of this quartet. The only Bartok I knew was the Concerto for Orchestra, which I had been in love with for years -- but for some reason, I had never heard any of the six string quartets.
Keller dropped the needle on the record. After the first few bars, my future "girlfriend" had a look on her face which I am quite sure was identical to my own. We were suddenly in another universe. Neither of us had ever heard music this powerful, scored for four instruments. After 22 minutes or so, we all sat, completely stunned by what we had just heard.
We spent the next few classes carefully analyzing the piece. Without getting too technical, I can tell you this:
The form of this masterpiece was something unfamiliar to us -- what Keller told us was called "Arch Form."
In other words, the relationship between movements is based upon themes (although it is probably better to use the term "motif" or even "cell") which Bartok sort of "mirrors" in movements 1 and 5; and 2 and 4.
The music begins with an extremely chromatic, dense and very textural introduction. The first, and most important motif occurs in Bar 11:
I always liked the term "cell" because this little motif is so short, varied for just a bar or two before Bartok launches into a stretto section, loosely based on the intervalic relationships in the cell, but without the same insistent rhythm. The cell returns, getting more and more complex and gritty until ...
Look at those glisses!
Similar to the earlier stretto (purple arrow shows cello entrance, followed by viola), but this is now accompanied by an amazing little figure in the violins, a sort of quick appoggiatura, played piano (blue arrow). I was so amazed by this bit of writing that I ripped it off almost literally in a piece I wrote the following year (age 17, so please forgive me!)
The top three instruments create a 6-note chord by Bar 4 -- a beautiful cluster-chord of three Major Seconds separated by a Minor Third (A-B-C# and E-F#-G#). The cello then begins its gripping, intense recitative-like chromatic melody (or motif or cell) ...
Remember, this is an arch within an arch!
At Bar 34 (out of 71 total bars -- pretty accurate arch, huh?), the 6-note chord is placed in the lower three strings while the melody shifts to the first violin, which continues this dirge-like song until the final bars where a 7-note chord is held, and then each note is gradually released until only one note remains -- a high D in the first violin!
The relationship between the 2nd and 4th movements is packed full of difficult references. For instance, the basic chromatic "melody" is the same -- although the differential in tempi makes it nearly impossible for the average listener to hear the similarities.
Perhaps more obvious is the fact that the 2nd movement required mutes throughout -- while this movement allows the players to set their bows down, as all four players every note pizzicato!
Now, if you look at the first page again, you will see that Note #2 (on the bottom of the page) refers to a (then) new type of pizzicato which involves pulling the string above the fretboard and allowing it to "snap" back.
Today, any advanced string player will tell you that those little circles above the notes mean "Bartok pizzicato." It has become part of the string player's vocabulary! Notice how viola and cello strum their instruments like a guitar! This quartet is packed with special effects which will blow your mind! But they would certainly be nothing but effects unless the music underlying it all wasn't so great and powerful. It speaks to the creative mind in that all artists seem to seek out new techniques and tricks that would make their art unique.
Bartok did this and so much more.
The last page of the movement is packed with Bartok technique: note the stretto throughout; the guitar-like plucks in the cello and that beautiful, strange quiet chord which ends the movement -- much like the quietly surprising end of its mirror -- the 2nd movement!
This crazy Hungarian dance will lift you out of your chair ~ if you are already standing, prepare to fly!
Things finally settle down a bit here: notice the cello and second violin playing their open strings in opposite directions, as first violin and viola enter into some stretto, far removed from the tonality of those open strings -- creating a marvelous, slightly dissonant effect.
Bartok pulls out all the stops as we near the end. Reverse arpeggios, col legno, and pizz, leading to a cello solo and a quick bit of restfulness -- until it suddenly gears up again and courses towards this fantastic coda:
Our old friend of a motif from the first movement reappears and is repeated and repeated until finally -- just slightly reorchestrated -- the motif which ended the first movement is brought back to close out this magnificent string quartet!
All six quartets are marvelous; however, in my opinion, only half of them are cutting-edge, great masterpieces: 3, 4 and 5 ...
As I stated previously, the 60's Juilliard sessions are still my favorites. Back then, there were precious few quartets who dared to record these extremely difficult, hairy pieces!
Today, there is a plethora of recordings, some amazing, some terrific, some just pretty average.
Here are a few of the recordings which I own and enjoy: