8. Bela Bartok & love’s death

'Portrait of Bela Bartok', Robert Bereny (1913)

At one fraught stage in The Possessions of Doctor Forrest our eponymous (anti-) hero finds himself alone at home, enveloped in evening gloom, “listening to Bartok’s ‘String Quartet #1’, staring out through my window at an orb of a moon in all her high, mesmeric splendour. Then She was at my shoulder, her breath in my ear…” The ‘She’ to whom Forrest refers, however, is not someone he was hoping to see.
Bartók’s first string quartet was composed in 1908 and inspired partly by his unrequited love for the great violinist Stefi Geyer, for whom he had a towering passion but who advised him, finally, that she would never entertain a proposal of marriage. The young Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (1907) had been a sort of love-song to Geyer. But when she heard that first String Quartet she may have felt considerable unease, as the opening notes of its Lento borrowed a motif from the devotional violin concerto, only to transform it into a pained piece of profound lamentation – a ‘funeral dirge’ as its composer described it, the death in question being that of love.
String Quartet #1 is considered by Bartók connoisseurs to be very much an early opus wherein the composer was still actively seeking his own creative voice. But I can’t think of a Bartók piece I like better than that slow fugue with which the piece begins. It’s lush, romantic, yearning, haunting. It has been compared – rightly, I daresay, since this is another piece I love and which I will write about in time – to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.
Bartok’s great friend the composer Zoltan Kodaly described the First Quartet as ‘an intimate drama, a kind of ‘return to life’ of one who has reached the brink of the abyss.’ And indeed there are magical moments within that Lento where in the mood of mournfulness is broken or lifted by startling outbursts of rhythm or crescendo. It is young man’s music, it testifies to the spirit that won’t be broken. In later years, though, Bartok must surely have regarded it still with some wistfulness. For me, as you’ll have guessed, it is also yet another fantasy-‘Theme From Doctor Forrest‘…


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