The work is in five movements:
Additionally, the first movement, which is in a sort of sonata form, is itself arch-like, in that each section of exposition is given in reverse order during the recapitulation - the melodies of each section are also inverted (played upside-down). Bartók himself pointed out that the keyss used in the movement ascend in the steps of the whole tone scale: the exposition is in B flat, C and D; the development is in E; and the recapitulation is in F sharp, A flat and B flat.
The three middle movements are all in ternary form, with the third in a time signature typical of Bulgarian folk music: nine quavers in each bar in uneven groups of 4+2+3. The last movement is again arch-like: Bartók described it as being in the form ABCB'A' with a coda to round things off.
The work was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and is dedicated to her. It was premiered by the Kolisch Quartet in Washington, D.C on April 8, 1935 and first published in 1936 by Universal Edition.