There is some risk in bringing elements of biography to bear on a musical work, especially for such an abstract work as a string quartet. Realistic messages from the outside world can doubtless inform the ears and imagination of performer and listener alike, but biographical detail also opens up broad possibilities for hearing what is not there and (more importantly) overlooking what is there. What is, is music, whose forces can too easily be frozen by specific reference.
In some cases, however, personal history brings so much to enrich both the motion and atmosphere of a work that it cannot be ignored. So it is with Bela Bartok’s Sixth String Quartet, which not only is influenced by the context of its composition, but actually seems to react to it directly. To begin with: Bartok’s context could hardly have been darker. He was writing this string quartet in 1939, during which his mother was becoming more and more ill, his own health was weakening, and Europe was evidently preparing for a massive paroxysm of violence. Nobody could say exactly what would happen — or even discern what was already happening — but Bartok was distressed enough to be preparing to leave Europe despite poor health, despite his long-standing relationship with Hungary, and despite his advanced age. He moved to the United States in 1940, though he was not able to emigrate with much enthusiasm or professional preparation. He managed, with help, to subsist in New York for a few years, but died of leukemia in 1945.
The Sixth String Quartet does not mince words on the matter of mood. Every movement begins with a slow section marked mesto — ‘sad’, in Italian — an unusual marking almost certainly referring to the slow movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 59, No. 1, as well as to Bartok’s state of mind. From each of these ‘mesto’ musings (always singing the same tune, or almost), the quartet seems to slip from present sadness into ambiguous or light memory: the first movement becomes a curious and playful vivace; the second becomes a sort of misguided march (with wailing in-between); and the third becomes an almost-cheerfully corrupt burlesque. But the mesto present gains force each time it appears — first it is one voice, then two voices, then three. And in the fourth movement, which Bartok had originally thought would become a perpetuum mobile finish, the sadness of the present seems not to let him escape to another idea, and mesto, now in all four voices, prevails. Fragments of the other movements reappear, slowly, one by one, remembered as ghosts of themselves (as ideas rather than fantasies, if one may make a distinction — something into which one cannot lose oneself). The Bartok String Quartets are one of the great achieve- ments of classical music. There could hardly be a more touching and telling valediction than this, the last of the set of six. The message is simultaneously personal, interpersonal, abstract, and geopolitical — something only possible, perhaps, when the message is merely musical.