Bartók’s Grooves: Metrical Processes in the Fourth String Quartet

Author: Roeder, John

Publication details: Bartók’s String Quartets: Tradition and Legacy, edited by Harald Krebs and Daniel Biro, 81-107.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2014


Abstract: Many passages in Bela Bartók’s string quartets resemble the repeated pattern, or grooves, of popular and world music. The fourth quartet, for instance, exposes extended periodicities near the beginning of nearly every movement. Like pop grooves, these invite the listener to anticipate the repetitions of patterns and durations, and to participate by entraining to pulse and by appreciating deviations from expectation. However, unlike the simple meters of pop grooves, each of Bartók’s grooves is metrically distinctive, complex, and particular to its context. Focusing on the Fourth String Quartet, this chapter analyzes several such passages in terms of some recent theories of meter. For the openings of the second, fourth, and fifth movements, the actual music is compared with recompositions that are “normalized” to a common, consistent meter. The comparison brings out several characteristic procedures that are expressed in terms of interacting pulse streams and an ensemble of overlapping metrical projections. Listening in this way to the first movement, a narrative becomes apparent in which an important motive takes on various metrical characters and accentual profiles. The narrative is expressed through a series of analytical diagrams covering the major sections of the movement.