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8.554321 - BARTOK: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2
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Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2

Enshrined in Hungary's history as its foremost composer, Béla Bartók continues to gain in popularity as the century draws to a close. There can be no doubt that his name will be included among the greatest composers from the first half of the twentieth century and that his music will endure the changes in taste that will inevitably occur in 'classical' music. His innovative use of eastern European folk music as the most significant inspirational source has left us a legacy of works which are highly individual and fresh even more than fifty years after his passing. He remains without comparable peers in his style, which transcends the barriers of art and folk, east and west. Some would even argue that his influence can be observed in music which fuses classical and jazz. As information continues to emerge of the details of his life and character, we realise that this genius was not only a combination of composer, performer, teacher and ethnomusicologist, but a man with strong interest in the laws of nature and with some eccentric aspects to his personality.

A relatively youthful work, written in 1907-08, Bartók's first concerto demonstrates considerable change in writing style since his earlier major work, the symphonic poem Kossuth, of 1903. His folk-music collaboration with Zoltán Kodály had begun in 1905 and by the time work began on Violin Concerto No. 1 he had already published his first Hungarian folksong settings, had started to collect folk music with an Edison phonograph, and had begun an investigation of Rumanian folk music. The influence of the music of Debussy and Reger has also been noted in the compositions of this period.

One cannot discuss this work without reference to Stefi Geyer, the young violinist with whom Bartók became totally besotted. During the composition period he was clearly deeply in love with her and this work, dedicated to her, is undoubtedly the musical expression of his feelings. Geyer was later to describe the first movement as 'the young girl whom he had loved' and the second as 'the violinist whom he had admired'. Bartók himself described the first movement as his 'most direct' music, 'written exclusively from the heart'. The opening D F# A C# motif is the germ of the work and is alluded to in many instances in later works, including his final work, the Viola Concerto of 1945. In its minor form, C# E G# B#, Bartók described it in a letter to Geyer of September, 1907, as 'your leitmotif'. This motif was also used, probably coincidentally, by Vernon Duke in I Can't Get Started (1935). Geyer never performed the work and in fact it remained unplayed in its original two movement form until after her death. The first performance in Basle on 30th May, 1958 featured the violinist Hans-Heinz Schneeberger and conductor Paul Sacher. Prior to this the first movement became, with minor modifications, the first of the Two Portraits, the second movement being an orchestrated version of the last of the Fourteen Bagatelles, renamed Grotesque.

Just as his first violin concerto was dedicated to a violinist, so too was the second. The wording 'To my dear friend, Zoltán Székely' shows the depth of their friendship and professional relationship. After writing the Two Violin Rhapsodies in 1928, Bartók invited Székely to choose one as dedicatee. He selected the second and the first was subsequently dedicated to Szigeti.

The close involvement of Székely in the genesis of the first violin concertos is of particular interest. As he had commissioned the concerto, he took a strong interest in its development and offered advice to the composer during their violin and piano rehearsals. These suggestions included changing and adding notes, altering articulations and even a reworking of some structural aspects. Bartók originally proposed a one-movement work with variations but Székely objected, requesting a 'real' three-movement concerto. In the original ending of the work there was no role for the solo violin. Again Székely requested that the work end 'like a concerto, not a symphony' Bartók obliged and added an alternative ending, though leaving the original version available. In spite of agreeing to write a three-­movement work, Bartók had the last word as shown in his letter to Székely when referring to the third movement 'strictly speaking, it is a free variation of the first movement (so I managed to outwit you. I wrote variations after all)'.

While this work demonstrates highly sophisticated use of twelve-tone structures, imitative devices and tonal and rhythmic features, its flavour is inspired by folk music and the opening theme is derived specifically from folk dances collected from Transylvanian peasant violinists.

Donald Maurice


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