Bartok’s Arch Form: Not So Clever?

I began to discover the secrets of Bartok’s musical structures as a teenager. Following ErnÅ‘ Lendvai’s revelatory analysis, at the time I found the Hungarian wizard’s use of arch form to be the height of sophistication. Celebrated examples of this are the fourth and fifth string quartets (click through the playlist of the brilliant Takacs Quartet to find them):

Both quartets are in five movements, an odd number being necessary to create symmetry. The fourth is structured as follows: A / AB / C / AB1 / A1, where movements two and four are variations on the material in movements one and five, and the apex of the arch is the radically other “night music” stillness of the central movement. The durations are also arch form: 6 / 3 / 6 / 3 / 6 minutes respectively. The fifth is even more ingenious, with the individual movements containing their own arch structures, or “arches within the arch”. As Lendvai points out, earlier work such as the opera Bluebeard’s castle also forms an arch, rising tonally from F# through a tritone (half an octave) to glorious C major with the opening of the fifth door, and then sinking back to gloomy F# by the end. I embed here a full performance with score, plus a very rare sighting of English director Michael Powell’s film version (apologies that neither is in the original Hungarian):

So influenced was I by the symmetry of the arch, I even wrote a piece using it, in seven short sections, turning upside down the Bluebeard tonal structure: Eb/E – A/Bb – Eb/E. Of special pride to me was the retrograde of the opening at the end, an idea stolen from Berg’s Chamber Concerto. (Sorry to link this here, and please be kind. I was only 16!).

But now I ask myself which of the Bartok quartets I most enjoy and return to, and it turns out to be neither of the “archies”, which have started to seem a little obvious. Bartok was perhaps aware of these diminishing returns, with his multiplication of arches in the fifth quartet. Instead I reach for the third, tough, taut and concentrated, an infinity of expression in a very small space. The form here across the four parts is the much simpler: A / B / A1 / B1.  Its often harsh sonorities and wiry lines really throw into relief the lyrical beginning of part 3, where the opening theme is recapitulated as a great song on the ‘cello. Throughout its terse fifteen minutes every note counts.



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