How to write string quartets after Beethoven, whose works – especially the late ones – have been regarded by his followers as the paradigm of “pure and absolute art of sounds”? Schubert, his contemporary, the author of 15 quartets, may not have felt this pressure so acutely, but Schumann, with his poetic predisposition, must have been aware of it. After several unsuccessful attempts, he presented to the world three pieces of rare appeal: String Quartets, Op. 41 (1842), the only ones he had ever composed. Disrupting the classical unity of the genre, he enriched it with a new, romantic dimension of beauty. To paraphrase Schumann’s famous remark about Chopin’s works, one may say that Schumann’s Quartets are true flowers among romantic chamber music.
The Third from the six String Quartets by Béla Bartók, alongside Dmitri Shostakovich (15 quartets) the greatest master of this genre in the past century, is very different in spirit. Here, the music refuses to openly acknowledge its classical-romantic affinities, but seems to reach for its deeper source, the archetypes of melody, rhythm, and timbre. In spite of its radicalism, the Third String Quartet (1927) embraces “the breath of earth,” which pervades all Bartók’s works, thus demonstrating that while enjoying world-wide renown, the composer never renounced his national, Hungarian roots.