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Bartók's Pyramid at the Pantheon:
Reflections on the Borromeo String Quartet's Year with Bartók

by Nicholas Kitchen*

I have a rather fanciful image in my mind of a Pantheon of Great String Quartet Music. The building I envision is like the great Pantheon in Rome. Bach is an Etruscan ruin beneath the foundations. Haydn is the opening to the sky at the top of the dome that allows the whole to be illuminated. Beethoven is the dome, whose ambitious arc soars above the entire structure. Mozart is the intricate indentations embedded in the dome so high above, lightening the arch and adding to it a more exquisite beauty. Brahms is embedded in the base, somehow linked to Bach. Mendelssohn elegantly supports the lower ring of the structure. Schumann is in the flowing robes of stone which later sculptors have added to the simplicity of the original. And Bartók? I think Bartók, by the slow, impartial judgment of time, has now taken his place in this Pantheon. Perhaps his role is like the Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, totally different but resonating in perfect counterpoint to the older structures.

During 2003, our Quartet, the Borromeo String Quartet ( ), is enjoying the chance to delve deeply into the six quartets of Bartók. We are playing numerous Bartók cycles in Cape Cod, in Kalamazoo, in Tokyo, in Seoul, in New York - and in Durham, my hometown. We are not alone. Many ensembles are organizing many wonderful events around the Bartók quartets. This is an indication of the way the understanding of Bartók is just now coming of age in the larger music community. More and more listeners are coming to love Bartók's music; more and more students are seeing the value of studying Bartók; more and more groups are making Bartók part of their very basic repertoire. On the greatness of Bartók I remember a discussion I had with Christoph Eschenbach. We acknowledged that there was a moment when one realized that " Bartók is not just great music, but GREAT music."

Beethoven's quartets have been in this position for a long time. For those who spend years learning the language of musical expression passed down through the generations of great composers, all roads lead somehow to Beethoven. The possibilities for the string quartet, brought to light in the work of Haydn and Mozart, are explored with unstoppable force in the work of Beethoven. Like the great explorers of the globe, Beethoven charted the map of where the string quartet could go. His map included places that still feel as if they are at the outer limits of what a string quartet can achieve. More impressive and meaningful over time is that he arrived at such courageous statements with a language that has such internal consistency and integrity that the faraway land which is explored is not just touched like a phantom island of inspiration, but is charted, explored, prepared so others can return.

In just this way Bartók has charted a rich continent of musical inspiration, and I believe the way in which he has done this makes his work similar in significance to Beethoven's. Fortunately, not only players but also audience members seem to be coming to this belief as well.

This was not always the case. I still remember quartet concerts I attended as a child when Bartók was listened to with great mistrust. I remember one occasion when this music was even booed. Even now sometimes an audience member comes up after we play Bartók to make a statement of "political protest" against the type of music we have just played.

In these slightly embarrassing moments it is meaningless to question the listener's individual taste. Rather, it is a moment to consider what is being liked or disliked in the Bartók. Bartók built harmonies from different sources, namely the eastern European and West Asian folk music that he studied so closely. These sources result in many more dissonant intervals, making some listeners uneasy. But actually, Bartók's treatment of this material is deeply similar to the way Beethoven develops material. The creation of strong feelings of tonal centers and the construction of musical motives into rhythmic structures strikingly similar to Beethoven's, shows that Bartók is taking a new set of sound sources, but treating them with the very same techniques which are such an effective means of exposition in the music we think of as more "standard." Sometimes the raw energy of Bartók's music does not seem welcome by listeners. Here, I think we must also ask: When a listener is "comfortable" listening to Beethoven or Bach or Schubert, is the performer really bringing out the energy inside the score? Regardless of the answers to these questions, what is remarkable to witness these days is how members of the audience communicate to us their sense of discovery when we play Bartók. Often, whatever Bartók quartet we happen to be doing becomes their favorite piece on the program, and they are genuinely excited and surprised to have discovered great music. This same enthusiasm comes through naturally in the often-repeated experience our Quartet has had in residencies: kids are often simply turned on by Bartók's music and often like it the best - although Mozart is, reassuringly, often a favorite as well!

As our Quartet presents concerts of the Bartók cycle this year, we are usually doing it in one concert. With the presentations in Seoul, Tokyo and New York, we are also doing seminars on Bartók and on string quartet playing. These shorter seminars follow a full semester seminar on the Bartók quartets that we conducted at the New England Conservatory of Music, where we are Quartet-in Residence. Incidentally, it is a great honor and also something of a paradox that our marathon performances of all six Bartók quartets, complete, are said to have been the very first ever given in Asia.

Looking back at our own studies, we feel a surprisingly close connection to Bartók. When the Borromeo Quartet studied at New England Conservatory ten years ago, we had the privilege to work extensively on the Sixth String Quartet with the violist of the Kolisch Quartet, Eugene Lehner. The Sixth String Quartet was dedicated to the Kolisch Quartet, and they worked directly with Bartók on this piece. Mr. Lehner brought home to us in such a vivid way how the second and third movements of this work are parodies, brimming with sarcasm at the features of militarism in 1939. Also, his poignant ways of singing the themes of this piece are still alive in our minds. Interestingly, though, he also related how Bartók was more interested in putting markings in the score than in coaching the musicians. He would quickly correct incorrectly read markings, but when asked more general questions, tended to put his attention on the upcoming dinner.

In fact, Mr. Lehner had helped Bartók significantly during the last few years of Bartók's life. Thus, in Boston, Mr. Lehner assisted Bartók in his dealings with the Boston Symphony when they presented his then newly composed Concerto for Orchestra. The premiere of the Concerto for Orchestra was a high moment in the recognition of Bartók's greatness. That particular work has led a very happy life, being quickly accepted into the main orchestral repertoire and continuing in its popularity right to the present day. This triumph was an almost painful exception to so much of the attitude that Bartók had dealt with in reaction to his music. The personal respect with which he was treated in this moment of triumph was also in stark contrast to much of the way he was treated, especially in his last years, when he was in America. (Readers of CVNC may wish to recall that Bartók spent part of his last years in North Carolina, in Asheville, where - among other things - he worked on the Concerto for Orchestra and the Third Piano Concerto, which bears the nickname "Asheville Concerto.")

Bartók's music was resolutely ignored by many important musicians in Hungary, to the point that Bartók gave up on having many of his works receive any significant performances. When he came to America, forced to live here by the horrendous developments all across Europe, he was not only largely ignored as a composer (with important exceptions such as that mentioned above), he was exposed to indignities which are shameful to recount, but important to remember in order to realize that great art is created often in spite of humble but persistent obstacles. For example, a large American piano company recalled the piano which they had given Bartók to use, leaving him with none at all because he had no money to purchase one. Bartók's own piano playing was greeted coldly with a number of bad reviews and very few invitations to perform. Days before his death, he was ordered by doctors to the hospital with no consideration of the works which he was on the verge of finishing at that moment, even though there was little or no prospect that anything of importance could be achieved in his treatment for cancer. On his death bed he had to scream and argue with his New York landlord. His landlord had come to evict him and his wife from their 57th street apartment because their son had slept overnight with them. Their apartment was rented for two people and TWO PEOPLE ONLY. Their son's night with them followed father and son's miraculously coincidental meeting on the street, though neither knew the fate of the other after the tremendous dislocations caused by the war in Europe.

People often have no idea of the significance of those who are in their midst. It is frightening to realize how often in history the greatest achievements are made in the most lonely and unsupported way. We may be thankful that the will of creators seems to be nearly unstoppable, their creative vision itself leading them through the most trying circumstances. But now, we can happily see the appreciation of the greatness of Bartók's music seeping deep into the community of music lovers.

The Bartók quartets, like the Haydn quartets, and like the Beethoven quartets, will survive and make any and all indignities irrelevant. They will feed us as great music has done for as long as we as music lovers have asked it to. Performing these works, teaching them, studying them, allows us to try as musicians, as listeners, as students, as people, to bring into life the immense creative force of this music. In recreating this music in performance, we as performers endeavor to touch on the transcendent human vision of beauty that great music - in this case, Bartók - captures and preserves for us and for all who follow us. How lucky we are to have such a job!

* Nicholas Kitchen is First Violinist of the Borromeo String Quartet, Artistic Director of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival, and a member of the faculty at the New England Conservatory of Music. His wife, Yeesun Kim, is the BSQ's cellist.

Note: A slightly different version of this article was published in the August edition of Chamber Music .


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