The Second String Quartet, Opus 17, appeared almost ten years after the First, a long period in the life of a young composer. Much had happened musically to Bartók during this time. His interest in folk music and concurrent preoccupation with theatre music in the opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle
and the ballet The Wooden Prince
sought expression in a different medium. It was apposite for him to compose a second Quartet in the years 1915-17 owing to the growing flexibility of his technique. The dance style of ballet, his multi-rhythms, a greater concentration upon thematic cellular organisms, and the supra-musical drama of what ‘happens’ in an abstract work, to say nothing of the refreshing change of medium for the artist – these factors led to the Second Quartet, which is as original a composition as the First.
The movements are very different in character, as genre pieces (or, as in early quartets, a partita) in structure, yet the first movement’s urgency, the demanding rhythmic complexity of the Scherzo and the easing of tension in the long, slow finale, combine to make a work from which one cannot take any one movement or conceive any alternative conclusion. Nor is the ending a ‘lament’ such as we might find in a work by one whose country was then a major combatant in a great war. Bartók’s Second Quartet is solely about music. His outrage at the war can be found in The Wooden Prince.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 1996