The Quartet No 1 is a journey from darkness to light – it begins, as Bartók said, as a chromatic ‘funeral dirge’. The opening transforms an idea which portrays Stefi Geyer, a young violinist to whom he had become attached. By the time of the Quartet their relationship was over, having ended with discussions of death and suicide. The Quartet begins in this depressed emotional state but the first movement does not wallow in Romantic self-pity. It is also effectively a prelude to the Allegretto, which notably uses a whole-tone scale. Nor is this an unabsorbed Debussy influence: the use of all twelve tones in the first movement’s exordium demands the refining process of the concentrated whole-tone scale which in the more overtly folk-based thematicism of the finale is reborn into a new and vibrant language – the rebirth being irrevocably organic, inherent in the nature of the instruments’ tuning in rising fifths. Thus the thrilling ending of the work with fifths resounding as powerful supertonics, embraces major and minor modes, the whole-tone scale and, significantly in view of the provenance of Bartók’s evolved musical language, the pentatonic scale. In this work the mature Bartók had arrived.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 1996