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March 25, 2011

Végh Quartet - Bartók: The Complete String Quartets

In honor of his 130th birthday, I thought we ought to pay some heed to the music of Béla Bartók. Now for those of you who like bluegrass and John Fahey and don't think you like modern classical music, consider this:
  1. John Fahey's compositional sense was guided by the desire to try to do with American folk music what Bartók did with Hungarian folk music. Bartók was as great an influence on Fahey as was Charley Patton.
  2. Béla Fleck was named after Béla Bartók.
  3. This is damn good music, whatever the genre.
Now, secondly, I want you to look at this photo of our man. Look at his eyes. Tell me, does he not burn with the fires of inspiration? Does he not look as crazy, intense, and twisted as Skip James?

I thought so.

Just remember. As the magic of the blues, Celtic music, and Indian Classical music relies on being in neither a major or minor scale, the music of Bartók derives its particular magic from being both harmonious and discordant, at the same time. If his music was a church (and in some ways it is), half the choir would be singing hallelujah together, while the other half shouted "I AM THE GOAT-HORNED DANCING BOY!"


Autobiography written by Béla Bartók in 1921.

I was born on March 25, 1881, in a small place called Nagyszentmiklós, which now, together with the whole county of Torontal, belongs to Rumania. My mother gave me my first piano lessons when I was six years old. My father, who was the head of an agricultural school, was gifted musically and active in many directions. He played the piano, organized an amateur orchestra, learned the cello in order to play that instrument in his orchestra, and composed some dance music. I was eight years old when I lost him. After his death my mother had to work as a schoolmistress and struggle hard for our daily bread. We first went to live at Nagyszöllõs (at present Czechoslovak territory), then to Beszterce in Transylvania (at present Rumanian territory) and in 1893 to Pozsony (Bratislava, at present Czechoslovak territory). I began writing piano music when I was nine years old and made my first public appearance as a “composer” and pianist at Nagyszöllõs in 1891 ; it was therefore a matter of some importance for us to settle at last in a biggish town. Among Hungarian country towns at that time it was Pozsony that had the most vigorous musical life, and by moving there I was given the possibility of having lessons in piano and composition with László Erkel (Ferenc Erkel’s son) and also of hearing a few operas, more or less well performed, and orchestral concerts. I had the opportunity, too, of playing chamber-music, and before I was eighteen I had acquired a fairly thorough knowledge of music from Bach to Brahms (though in Wagner’s work I did not get further than Tannhäuser). All this time I was also busy composing and was under the strong influence of Brahms and Dohnányi (who was four years my senior). Especially Dohnányi’s youthful Opus I influenced me deeply.

When my education at the Gymnasium (high school) was concluded the question arose at which musical academy I should continue my studies. In Pozsony, at that time, the Vienna Conservatorium was considered the sole bastion of serious musical education, but I took Dohnányi’s advice and came to Budapest and became a pupil of István Thomán (in piano) and of Hans Koessler (in composition). I stayed here from 1899 till 1903. I started studying with great enthusiasm Wagner’s work, till then unknown to me – The Ring, Tristan, The Mastersingers – and Liszt’s orchestral compositions. I got rid of the Brahmsian style, but did not succeed via Wagner and Liszt, in finding the new way so ardently desired. (I did not at that time grasp Liszt’s true significance for the development of modern music and only saw the technical brilliance of his compositions.) I did no independent work for two years, and at the Academy of Music was considered only as a first-class pianist.

From this stagnation I was roused as by a lightning stroke by the first performance in Budapest of Thus Spake Zarathustra, in 1902. The work was received with real abhorrence in musical circles here, but it filled me with the greatest enthusiasm. At last there was a way of composing which seemed to hold the seeds of a new life. At once I threw myself into the study of all Strauss’s score and began again to write music myself. Other circumstances entered my life at the same time which proved a decisive influence on my development. It was the time of a new national movement in Hungary, which also took hold of art and music. In music, too, the aim was set to create something specifically Hungarian. When this movement reached me, it drew my attention to studying Hungarian folk music, or, to be more exact, what at that time was considered Hungarian folk music.

Under these diverse influences I composed in 1903 a symphonic poem entitled Kossuth, which was at once accepted for performance by János Richter, and was performed in Manchester in February 1904. Other compositions of the same period are a Violin Sonata and a piano Quintet. The former was performed by Rudolf Fitzner in Vienna, the latter by the Prill Quartet. These three works remain unpublished. In 1904 I composed my Rhapsody for piano and Orchestra (Opus I), which I entered for the Rubinstein competition in Paris but without success. In 1905 I wrote my first Suite for Large Orchestra.

Meanwhile the magic of Richard Strauss had evaporated. A really thorough study of Liszt’s --uvre, especially of some of his less well known works, like Années de Pélerinage, Harmonies Poétiques et religieuses, the Faust Symphony, Totentanz, and others had after being stripped of their mere external brilliance which I did not like, revealed to me the true essence of composing. I began to understand the significance of the composer’s work. For the future development of music his --uvre seemed to me of far greater importance than that of Strauss or even Wagner.

In my studies of folk music I discovered that what we had known as Hungarian folk songs till then were more or less trivial songs by popular composers and did not contain much that was valuable. I felt an urge to go deeper into this question and set out in 1905 to collect and study Hungarian peasant music unknown until then. It was my great good luck to find a helpmate for this work in Zoltán Kodály, who, owing to his deep insight and sound judgment in all spheres of music, could give me many a hint and much advice that proved of immense value. I started these investigations on entirely musical grounds and pursued them in areas which linguistically were purely Hungarian. Later on I became fascinated by the scientific implications of my musical material and extended my work over territories which were linguistically Slovakian and Rumanian.

The outcome of these studies was of decisive influence upon my work, because it freed me from the tyrannical rule of the major and minor keys. The greater part of the collected treasure, and the more valuable part, was in old ecclesiastical or old Greek modes, or based on more primitive (pentatonic) scales, and the melodies were full of most free and varied rhythmic phrases and changes of tempi, played both rubato and giusto. It became clear to me that the old modes, which had been forgotten in our music, had lost nothing of their vigour. Their new employment made new rhythmic combinations possible. This new way of using the diatonic scale brought freedom from the rigid use of the major and minor keys, and eventually led to a new conception of the chromatic scale, every tone of which came to be considered of equal value and could be used freely and independently.

When an appointment to the chair of piano teaching at the Academy of Music in Budapest was offered to me in 1907 I considered this a happy event because it enabled me to settle in Hungary and to continue my studies in musical folklore. In 1907, at the instigation of Kodály, I became acquainted with Debussy’s work, studied it through thoroughly and was greatly surprised to find in his work “pentatonic phrases” similar in character to those contained in our peasant music. I was sure these could be attributed to influences of folk music from Eastern Europe, very likely from Russia. Similar influences can be traced in Igor Stravinsky’s work. It seems therefore that, in our age, modern music has developed along similar lines in countries geographically far away from each other. It has become rejuvenated under the influence of kind of peasant music that has remained untouched by the musical creations of the last centuries. My works which, from Opus 4 onward, tried to convey something of the development just described were received in Budapest with animosity.

This lack of understanding had many reasons, one of which was the inadequacy of the performances in which our new orchestral works were heard. We could find neither a conductor who would understand our works nor an orchestra able to perform them. In 1911, when these controversies became very heated, a number of young musicians, Kodály and myself among them, tried hard to found a New Hungarian Musical Society. The chief aim of the new organization would have been to form an orchestra able to perform old, new and recent music in a proper way. But we strove in vain, we could not achieve our aim.

Other more personal disappointments were added to this broken plan and in 1912 I retired completely from public life. With more enthusiasm than ever I devoted myself to studies in musical folklore. More than one daring journey to faraway countries was planned in my head, out of which, as a modest beginning, one only was carried out. In 1913 I travelled to Biskra [Algeria] and the surrounding countryside, collecting Arabic folk music. Then came the outbreak of the war, which - apart from general human considerations - hit me very hard because it put an end to my work. Only a small part of Hungary remained open to my studies and I worked there under hampered conditions till 1918.
The years 1917 marked a turning point in Budapest’s audience attitude about my works. I had the chance to hear my ballet The Wooden Prince, brilliantly performed by the master Egisto Tango who, in 1918, conducted also the performance of my opera in one act, written in 1911 : The Bluebeard’s Castle

This auspicious turning point was unfortunately followed by the political and economical collapse of 1918 autumn. The period of unrest that followed and lasted about 18 months didn’t allows to work seriously.

Even the current situation doesn’t allow to think about the resumption of the works related to folk music. We can’t afford this luxury ; on the other hand, the scientific exploration of territory detached from Hungary is almost impossible for political reasons and because of mutual hostility. As for to visit faraway countries, it’s an unrealisable dream.

Besides, no real interest appears in the world for this branch of musicology. Who know ? Maybe it hasn’t the importance that these fanatics assign to it.

Béla Bartók - Biography
by Michael Rodman
Through his far-reaching endeavors as composer, performer, educator, and ethnomusicolgist, Béla Bartók emerged as one of the most forceful and influential musical personalities of the twentieth century. Born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Romania), on March 25, 1881, Bartók began his musical training with piano studies at the age of five, foreshadowing his lifelong affinity for the instrument. Following his graduation from the Royal Academy of Music in 1901 and the composition of his first mature works -- most notably, the symphonic poem Kossuth (1903) -- Bartók embarked on one of the classic field studies in the history of ethnomusicology. With fellow countryman and composer Zoltán Kodály, he traveled throughout Hungary and neighboring countries, collecting thousands of authentic folk songs. Bartók's immersion in this music lasted for decades, and the intricacies he discovered therein, from plangent modality to fiercely aggressive rhythms, exerted a potent influence on his own musical language.

In addition to his compositional activities and folk music research, Bartók's career unfolded amid a bustling schedule of teaching and performing. The great success he enjoyed as a concert artist in the 1920s was offset somewhat by difficulties that arose from the tenuous political atmosphere in Hungary, a situation exacerbated by the composer's frank manner. As the specter of fascism in Europe in the 1930s grew ever more sinister, he refused to play in Germany and banned radio broadcasts of his music there and in Italy. A concert in Budapest on October 8, 1940, was the composer's farewell to the country which had provided him so much inspiration and yet caused him so much grief. Days later, Bartók and his wife set sail for America.

In his final years Bartók was beleaguered by poor health. Though his prospects seemed sunnier in the final year of his life, his last great hope -- to return to Hungary -- was dashed in the aftermath of World War II. He died of leukemia in New York on September 26, 1945. The composer's legacy included a number of ambitious but unrealized projects, including a Seventh String Quartet; two major works, the Viola Concerto and the Piano Concerto No. 3, were completed from Bartók's in-progress scores and sketches by his pupil, Tibor Serly.

From its roots in the music he performed as a pianist -- Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms -- Bartók's own style evolved through several stages into one of the most distinctive and influential musical idioms of the first half of the twentieth century. The complete assimilation of elements from varied sources -- the Classical masters, contemporaries like Debussy, folk songs -- is one of the signal traits of Bartók's music. The polychromatic orchestral textures of Richard Strauss had an immediate and long-lasting effect upon Bartók's own instrumental sense, evidenced in masterpieces such as Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936) and the Concerto for Orchestra (1945). Bartók demonstrated an especial concern with form in his exploitation and refinement of devices like palindromes, arches, and proportions based on the "golden section." Perhaps above all other elements, though, it is the ingenious application of rhythm that gives Bartók's music its keen edge. Inspired by the folk music he loved, Bartók infused his works with asymmetrical, sometimes driving, often savage, rhythms, which supply violent propulsion to works such as Allegro barbaro (1911) and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937). If a single example from Bartók's catalogue can be regarded as representative, it is certainly the piano collection Mikrokosmos (1926-1939), originally intended as a progressive keyboard primer for the composer's son, Peter. These six volumes, comprising 153 pieces, remain valuable not only as a pedagogical tool but as an exhaustive glossary of the techniques -- melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, formal -- that provided a vessel for Bartók's extraordinary musical personality.

Végh Quartet - Biography
by Robert Cummings
The Végh Quartet was not only one of the finest string quartets from mid-twentieth century Europe, but its style was never subjected to radical change over the years from personnel changes because the four original players remained members for 38 of the 40 years of the ensemble's existence. Its style evolved in subtle ways, of course, but its essential character endured until 1978: the quartet was Central European in its sound, with a bit more prominence given to the cello in order to build tonal qualities from the bottom upward. The Végh Quartet was best known for its cycles -- two each -- of the Beethoven and Bartók quartets. It also performed and recorded many of the Haydn quartets, as well as numerous other staples of the repertory by Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, and Debussy. For a group that disbanded in 1980, its recordings are still quite popular, with major efforts available in varied reissues from Music & Arts, Archipel, Naïve, and Orfeo.

The Végh Quartet was founded in 1940 by its eponymic first violinist Sándor Végh. The other original members were Sándor Zöldy (second violin), Georges Janzer (viola), and Paul Szabó (cello). The war years were hardly productive for the group, but in 1946 the Végh players settled in France and launched their international career. Soon they were making regular concert tours across the globe with great critical acclaim, and their first major recordings appeared in the early '50s: six quartets by Mozart (K. 387, 421, 458, 464, 575, and 590) in 1951-1952 on the André Charlin label and the complete Beethoven quartets in 1952 on the Les Discophiles Français label. The complete Bartók quartets came in 1954 on EMI and met with the same critical success.

The ensemble's reputation flourished in the 1960s and '70s, even though Sándor Végh had developed a parallel conducting career and had always been active as a music teacher, first in Switzerland, then in Germany and Austria. The group continued making international tours and issued numerous successful recordings during this period, including remakes of the Beethoven quartets (1972-1974, on Auvidis/Valois) and the Bartók six (1972, on Astrée). In 1978 Zöldy and Janzer left the group and were replaced by violinist Philipp Naegele and violist Bruno Giuranna. Végh himself took up a conducting post that same year in Salzburg with the Salzburg Camerata Academica. The group disbanded two years later.

Végh Quartet - Bartók: Complete String Quartets

Year: 1997 (released); 1972 (recorded)
Label: Valois

Disc: 1
1. String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Sz. 40, BB 52 (Op. 7)
2. String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Sz. 67, BB 75 (Op. 17): I. Moderato
3. String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Sz. 67, BB 75 (Op. 17): II. Allegro molto capriccioso
4. String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Sz. 67, BB 75 (Op. 17): III. Lento

Disc: 2
1. String Quartet No. 3 in C sharp major, Sz. 85, BB 93
2. String Quartet No. 4 in C major, Sz. 91, BB 95: I. Allegro
3. String Quartet No. 4 in C major, Sz. 91, BB 95: II. Prestissimo, con sordino
4. String Quartet No. 4 in C major, Sz. 91, BB 95: III. Non troppo lento
5. String Quartet No. 4 in C major, Sz. 91, BB 95: IV. Allegretto pizzicato
6. String Quartet No. 4 in C major, Sz. 91, BB 95: V. Allegro molto

Disc: 3
1. String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Sz. 102, BB 110: I. Allegro
2. String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Sz. 102, BB 110: II. Adagio molto
3. String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Sz. 102, BB 110: III. Scherzo
4. String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Sz. 102, BB 110: IV. Andante
5. String Quartet No. 5 in B flat major, Sz. 102, BB 110: V. Finale
6. String Quartet No. 6 in D major, Sz. 114, BB 119: I. Mesto - Piu mosso, pesante - Vivace
7. String Quartet No. 6 in D major, Sz. 114, BB 119: II. Mesto - Marcia
8. String Quartet No. 6 in D major, Sz. 114, BB 119: III. Mesto - Burletta
9. String Quartet No. 6 in D major, Sz. 114, BB 119: IV. Mesto

a family of flowers, under the sheltering sun. or alternate link.

* out-of-print (new for $149 at Amazon! used for $99!)

You can also get some free downloads from banjoist Jake Schepps' upcoming Bartók album here:


Jeremy said...

fucking great choice, IP. I have this on original vinyl pressing and it's a treasured set. What a lovely take on an amazing suite. Thank you

Jeremy said...

my mistake! This is a later version, looking forward to comparing to the '54 Vegh recordings. Yum

The Irate Pirate said...

oh yeah, i'd like to hear those '54 mono recordings and compare them too! does anyone have them in a digital format?

Jeremy said...

I think they have been released on CD but if no-one has them I'll have a go at ripping the vinyl

Félix said...

My favorite version of those quatuors. I know N°1 by heart!
And thanks for the autobiography, didn't know about this one.
Keep it up!

Melisma Mixolidio said...

I M looking for the album Introspettiva (2006) de Alice, quien supo cantar con Franco Battiato: thanks for the info. Saludos desde Argentina!

Jeremy said...

This may not gets to you before you head off, IP, but I hope you enjoy it when you return from your retreat. Ripped rather badly, I now realise, but hopefully still enjoyable.
Bartol String Quartets/Vegh Quartet, Columbia 1954
I hope the next month does you good, you old rogue

The Irate Pirate said...

thanks Jeremy! You caught me just before I vanished :)