Heart Vibrato

Béla Bartók’s first string quartet and its unrequited muse

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Béla Bartók: composing genius and love machine
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When we think of classical music and love — that is, love of the romantic variety — our thoughts tend to go in one of two directions. The sound of Debussyian strings may be conjured inside the head, all spangled and awash in the excitement of being with the person one most cares about. Or else things can get a touch Beethoven-y. Which is to say, heavy. Minor keys, crashing chords raining down needle-like from on high, like one has been smote through the heart — not by an arrow courtesy of Cupid, but by the pain of loss. Or, worse, the pain of wasted opportunities.

That will set you brooding, music like that. There have been quieter variations on the basic idea, as when Schubert composed his Winter Journey, about a man who, before the sun comes up, leaves the house of his beloved, for no expressed reason, never to return again. Piano notes become like footfalls, pacing further and further from the point of no return. Schubert’s friends were generally aghast. They didn’t see a masterpiece there, and I wonder what the friends of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók thought when he finished his first string quartet in January 1909 at the age of 27, a work which is unlike any classical piece there has ever been when it comes to a new slant on love. A new slant on unrequited love. A slant — get this — on how maybe that isn’t always such a bad thing. And if you find yourself mounting what you think is a lonely hearts club comprised of no one but yourself this Valentine’s Day, you’re going to want to have a listen to what our man Béla got up to.

Bartók considered himself a pianist and knew a spate of compositions by the time he was four. His other passion was for collecting folk music, with a special interest in Magyar melodies: tunes nearly as old as the forests they echoed around in as the gypsy caravans rolled along their trusted routes.

There’s an irony in that one of the great Modernists of classical music would achieve that perch by incorporating ancient strands of folk music into his work, but Bartók was always a game-changer, one who believed, when he met the violinist Stefi Geyer, that his life would change in non-musical ways. Actually, in non-musical ways that, too, would enhance the musical ones.

Geyer had a knack for making classical musicians fall in love with her. She was a capable violinist and got her start on the instrument at three. Bartók had a focus and a passion she didn’t — after all, we’re talking a man who stopped writing for three years so he could collect folk music to become better at writing — but so far as the love went, Bartók was all in on Ms. Geyer.

Geyer was 19 when Bartok’s passion for her was at its most ardent. The historical consensus is that he tried to encourage her to be more progressive in the living of her life (she was a strict Catholic) and realize a potential in herself that Bartók, perhaps more than she did, believed to be there. Conversely, she appeared to have a penchant for toying with him, which grew out of their disparate stations, in some regards. There was the age gap, which might not seem sizable now, but factor in the reality that Bartók was a genius musician and Geyer but a good one, and his attempts to influence her were met by efforts on her side to influence him. And that meant making liberal use of his feelings for her.

If you’ve been in love and it’s not come back to you the way you wished, you’ve perhaps felt embarrassed, even with your friends. Maybe the other person doesn’t love you, maybe they love you and the complications of life intrude, or maybe they’re not in a place to participate in an active love. Or maybe they’re just not a good person. You’ve heard it all before from the people in your life, whether that was after a break-up, or, if you’ve been spared these things as an adult, back in junior at your locker with a couple friends before the bell rang.

Bartók’s version of essentially wanting to clam up these matters of the heart came after he wrote his first violin concerto. Having composed it for Geyer, he then fought to suppress his own work. The broken-hearted would-be lover trying to keep himself from himself — from the ineluctability of his own ardor. In other words: telling yourself to shut up, as no good can come from the latest outpouring. Right? That’s what anyone will tell you after a certain point, and it’s what I imagine Bartók’s friends told him. The thing was, they were wrong. And Bartók was wrong. For one simple reason: Bartók could write like Bartók. And if you can do that, well, sing your song, son. Or write it, anyway.

Cut then to the first string quartet. Bartók only wrote six. This first one has three movements, and, over the space of several hours, you can listen to it ten times if you wish to, as I recently did as I pondered Valentine’s Day, staring out the window at early February snow not unlike what Schubert’s heart-smashed protagonist tramped out into.

Writing to Geyer, Bartók compared the first movement to a funeral dirge. It is so intensely contrapuntal that it can even put you in mind of John Coltrane near the end of his career, when he had blasted off into that interstellar phase. The tone of the violins is so potently lachrymose that you feel that if you were to touch the strings, your hand would come away wet.

The vibrato swells, quivers, as if these violins are the life organ of the piece, and they are in danger of going too far and giving out. Or the heart itself is being bowed. The cello saws away with legato notes, no space between any of them, it seems, abrading. At the end of that first movement, the violin lines become downright preternatural, like they’re imitating a Theremin from a 1950’s sci-fi film. This isn’t your Happy Valentine’s Day, baby girl, kind of stuff. No pack of M&M’s with cutesy heartwarming messages on them. This is pain.

Then again — only kind of. It’s a record of pain, but just recording your pain doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily in pain still. There are all kinds of ways to move forward, and what starts to become clear as we venture into the second movement is that Bartók has cashed in his unreturned love for something we might love, and something you have the sense he loved, too: a work of art that has inverted pain, and is now busy becoming its own pleasure.

The violins chirp, the cello employs bits of pizzicato — a brightly popping sound that may not have enticed Cupid to come in and save the day, but where Cupid sometimes fears to tread, the muse Calliope is often free to venture. This is the sound of Bartók veritably dancing with her. And I defy anyone to find strings more sensuous than at the close of the movement.

Geyer knew her music, and she knew it well. As rattled as she must have been by the first movement, the second must have affected her more. Bartók was moving on; he would be married later on in 1909, his association with Geyer at an end (she would later marry a lawyer with the surname Jung, of all names). Though they were more than friends, they were never formally together; there is something intervalic about each’s role in the other’s life.

But come the third movement of his first string quartet, Bartók is putting the finishing touches on what may well be his finest work. The violins have ditched the vibrato effects, and now employ variants of spiccato, a means of making notes bounce across the strings. And you know what? As you listen, you want to bounce, too. There was an element of Beethovian storm clouds at the piece’s inception, as if the very atmosphere was pressing you against the earth like a vice, but now we dance. Insofar as you can dance to a string quartet that has no regular meter or rhythm.

Those folk melodies that Bartók loved so much begin to sound from all angles. One violin pitches one in the direction of the cello and bass, and they kick it along to the other violin. And then, right before the end, something wonderful happens: the four instruments gather together as if to strut. Or promenade regally, anyway. There is such a vigor to the bowing that one can imagine Bartok telling performers to bow as hard as possible without snapping the thing. It’s a powerfully physical moment, like Glenn Gould laying into his piano for a crucial chord, or Pete Townshend windmilling away at his guitar.

A final folk dance follows, which goes faster and faster and faster until the music exhausts itself, exploding — all but spurting — in three final lines carried by the violins: a triumph of release. And then it’s over. There’s something so post-orgastic about it — of being spent, but this is good spent, if you will, that comes with a job well done. A job of art, as it were, and a job of the human heart and repairing it. Call that a kind of art, too. And call this a very special kind of Valentine.•

Illustration by Maren Larsen. Source images courtesy of music2020 via Flickr (Creative Commons) and Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons)

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
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