The Sixth Quartet was written towards the end of 1939 when Bartók, then 57 years old, was in a low emotional state. Although Hungary was not at first directly involved, World War II had broken out during the composition of the work, and his mother was mortally ill (she died a month after the Quartet was finished). Whilst it does not necessarily follow that the emotional tenor of the Sixth Quartet was suggested by these events, it is not hard to envisage Bartók’s concern in much of the work’s tragic nature, yet it also recalls aspects of Contrasts
, the Music for strings, percussion and celesta
, and the Divertimento
. Structurally the Sixth Quartet breaks fresh ground. It is the only one of Bartók’s Quartets ostensibly in four movements, but the first three are prefaced by the same ‘motto’ theme, rather differently treated, which is headed ‘Mesto’ (sad). Therefore we hear not four movements but seven (slow-fast; slow-fast; slow-fast; slow). The middle movements, March and Burletta, echo folk character, as do the Burletta’s quarter-tones. The opening ‘motto’ theme is played at first by the viola, and no matter what happens in the first three movements, its pervasive nature overhangs everything. In the finale it becomes the theme of that movement, a set of variations. Its final appearance (on viola, in the last six bars) is of resigned acceptance, not of hopelessness, for that which is accepted at last is a fact of life, upon which quiet resolve the work ends.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 1996