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8.550749 - BARTOK: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 / Contrasts

Bela Bartok (1881 -1945)

Bela Bartok (1881 -1945)

Violin Sonata No.1, Sz 75

Violin Sonata No.2, Sz 76

Contrasts, Sz 111


The Hungarian composer Bela Bartok occupies, as any great composer must, a unique position, his vital musical language inimitable and at once recognisable. He was born in 1881 in Nagyszentmiklos, in a region of Hungary later acquired by Romania, the son of the director of a government agricultural school, a talented amateur musician. After the latter's death in 1888, the family moved, settling first at Nagyszollos, later to form part of Czechoslovakia. For a time Bartok was sent away to school in Nagyvarad, where he lodged with his mother's sister, later to return to his mother and sister, when progress at the school seemed inadequate. He had had his first piano lessons from his mother and had shown significant musical interest and promise in these early years. Serious and consistent musical training, however, proved difficult until his mother found a position on the teaching staff of a teachers' training college in Pozsony, then part of Hungary and at one time its capital and now, as Bratislava, the capital of the Slovak Republic. Here Bartok studied with Laszlo Erkel, a son of the distinguished Hungarian composer Ferenc Erkel, while the city itself offered opportunities for amateur performance and for hearing concerts and operas. In these years he developed his own very considerable ability as a pianist, while composing in a largely derivative style. Completion of his studies at school was followed by the decision to embark on professional musical studies not in Vienna, where a scholarship was offered, but in Budapest, following the example of his school-fellow Erno Dohnanyi, four years his senior.


In spite of ill health, which had dogged his childhood and adolescence,

Bartok was able, during his earlier years at the Budapest Academy, to devote his attention very largely to performance as a pianist, with some professional engagements. His work as a composer was resumed through a study of recent scores by Richard Strauss and by a growing interest in Hungarian national music, a field that had remained unexplored and misunderstood by composers such as Liszt, whose Hungarian Rhapsodies had relied on a more German and sophisticated source than the music of the people. Bartok's early career began as a pianist, after a brief period of study with his friend Dohnanyi, with appearances in Vienna and Berlin. At the same time his first major composition, Kossuth, a hero's life, based on the life of Lajos Kossuth, leader of the Hungarian revolt against Austrian suzerainty in 1848, won predictable success at home. His attention as a composer, however, was now drawn to Hungarian folk-music in all its amazing regional variety .Into this he undertook considerable research, in collaboration with Zoltan Kodaly. This interest had an overwhelming effect on his composition, allowing him to develop, in a direction very different from that taken by Kodaly, a musical idiom that was both fundamentally Hungarian and essentially his own. Ironically it was at home that Bartok was least able to make an impression on the public as a composer. In 1907 he joined the staff of the Budapest Academy as a piano teacher, holding the position for the next thirty years, but it was only abroad that his work as a composer began to attract very considerable interest. The situation at home was not helped by the political events that followed the defeat in 1918, the consequent division of Hungarian territory, the economic difficulties of the country and the brief period of communist rule under Bela Kun, followed by the inevitable reaction, under Admiral Horthy. The proposed establishment of an archive of Hungarian folk-music under the direction of Bartok came to nothing, but he was eventually able to retain his position at the Academy, while gradually concentrating considerable attention on his career as a performer abroad, thus introducing his work to a wider audience than was ever possible in Hungary, even had general taste developed a greater degree of discrimination and interest in the contemporary.


In the 1930s Bartok was able to devote himself more consistently to the classification and publication of research material, with, in 1936, an expedition to Anatolia, in the company of the Turkish composer Adnan Saygun, the results of which were published posthumously. Meanwhile political events in Germany had their repercussions in his own professional life. National Socialist censorship of music in Germany and questions about Bartok's own racial credentials led him to forbid performances of his music in Germany, and the occupation of Austria, and consequent changes in the management and ownership of Universal Edition, Bartok's publishers and for long his supporters, made the situation still more difficult. A concert appearance in New York with Szigeti in the spring of 1940 was followed the next year by appointment as a Visiting Assistant at Columbia University, which he held for two years, until the end of 1942. Bartok's final years were spent in deteriorating health and with some financial uncertainty, although there were commissions for new works, some of which were fulfilled, while others were either rejected or left unfinished at his death in 1945. Significantly enough, this last period in America brought one of his best known works, the Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by Koussevitzky in memory of his wife, with the viola concerto, commissioned by William Primrose, and the third piano concerto left to be completed by others.


Bartok's first sonata for violin and piano was written in 1903 and coolly received by Leopold Auer and other members of the jury of the Prix Rubinstein in Paris in 1905. The first numbered and published sonata, the Violin Sonata No.1, in three movements, was written in the last three months of 1921 and dedicated to the Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Aranyi, great-niece of Joachim, who gave the performance of the work with him in London on 24th March 1922, followed by performance in Paris, in both places providing a very significant introduction of his work as a composer. Between July and November in the same year he wrote a second sonata for Jelly d'Aranyi, which she first performed with the composer in London on 7th May 1923. Both sonatas are highly original and often astringent in idiom, at times showing overt Hungarian influence in rhythmic figuration, the choice of certain melodic intervals and at times in mood. It was for Jellyd'Aranyi that Ravel, a composer also fascinated by the problems of combining string timbre with the percussive qualities of the piano, wrote his Tzigane.


Both Bartok's numbered violin sonatas have ambiguities of tonality, although the composer himself regarded the first as in C sharp minor and the second as in C major. The former ends, indeed, with a piano chord that combines C sharp major and C sharp minor, to which the violin adds the note B, the seventh. The first of the three movements opens with the first three notes of the chord of C sharp minor, but the piano figuration, pedalled to produce sonorities reminiscent, it has been suggested, of the Indonesian gamelan, obscures this tonality , while the violin enters with a sustained C natural. There are suggestions of the influence of Schoenberg in occasional use of what might appear to be part of a series of the twelve semitones of the scale, while the device of displaced octaves, in which some of the notes of a melody may be raised or lowered an octave, may also be associated with Schoenberg. The opening gamelan-like texture, however, suggests rather the language of Debussy, echoed in an occasional suggestion of the whole-tone scale. The rhythm of the violin part, on the other hand, is often essentially Hungarian. Although this may not be at once apparent, the first movement is broadly in tripartite sonata-form, with an exposition, a central development and a recapitulation. The form of the second movement is more easily heard. It is ternary in structure with the two elements of the first section re-appearing in the third, framing a central section that makes use of two other elements. The movement opens with the violin alone, then joined by the piano in gentle chords. There is a further passage for solo violin, joined once again by the piano. The middle section makes use of initial syncopation, followed by sharply rhythmic double stopped chords from the violin, which introduces the final section, at first with sustained chords from the piano, below a violin line that has all the feeling of an improvisation. The last movement needs less explanation, bursting upon the listener with all the vigour and energy of a Hungarian peasant dance that brings the two instruments together in mood.


The second of the two sonatas has only two movements, the first allowing a dialogue between violin and piano, the latter opening with a melodic line that almost suggests recitative. A relatively harsh climax is followed bya return of this opening texture and melodic contour. The second movement continues, without any perceptible break, the violin now playing pizzicato, before both instruments embark on vigorous material owing much to Hungarian peasant music. This second movement, which is in the form of a rondo, like the third movement of the first sonata, makes use of material derived from the first movement, providing music of fascinating variety, excitement and agitation gradually subsiding into tranquillity, with a final widely-spaced chord of C major.


If the combination of violin and piano presents problems in the reconciliation of timbres, the addition of a clarinet may be thought to add a further complication. Bartok, in Contrasts, chooses rather to emphasise the differences between the percussive piano, the wind instrument and the violin. Contrasts was commissioned by the American jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman, through the agency of Szigeti. It was written in 1938 and the first performance, which included only the Verbunkos and the Sebes, was given in New York by Benny Goodman, Joseph Szigeti and the pianist Endre Petri in January 1939. There were subsequent performances and a recording of the work made with Bartok as the pianist. Contrasts was published in 1942 with a dedication to Goodman and Szigeti. The three movements of Contrasts are in the general form of Hungarian dances, as the movement titles indicate. The Verbunkos was familiar as a recruiting-dance employed in the recruitment of soldiers to serve in the Imperial armies. A contrasting slow movement provides repose between the outer movements, the work ending with a Sebes, a fast dance. Attention has been drawn to connections between Contrasts and the last of Bartok's six string quartets, completed in November 1939, not least in the opening clarinet melody of the Verbunkos. This first movement includes a cadenza for clarinet, while the second, Piheno (Relaxation) includes elements reminiscent of the gamelan in the piano part and in the generally introspective mood of Bartok's music evoking the night. Sebes opens with the violinist playing on a mistuned instrument, like some village fiddler, the bottom string of the violin raise and its top string lowered a semitone. Various string techniques are used, as in the string quartets. A clarinet in A is used for the first two movements and for the gentler central section of the final Sebes, with a B flat instrument otherwise used in the last movement. In general the piano plays a subsidiary part in music that contrasts particularly the clarinet and violin. Benny Goodman had originally suggested a two-movement work, in the style of the Hungarian lassu and friss evident in the second violin sonata, the whole to be of a length to fit two sides of a twelve-inch record. Bartok’s insertion of a slow movement added further to a work that was already some four or five minutes too long. The final recording in April 1940 ran to two discs.



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