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 greatcomposer must, a unique position, his vital musical language inimitable and atonce recognisable. He was born in 1881 in Nagyszentmiklos, in a region of Hungarylater acquired by Romania, the son of the director of a government agriculturalschool, a talented amateur musician. After the latter's death in 1888, thefamily 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 withhis mother's sister, later to return to his mother and sister, when progress atthe school seemed inadequate. He had had his first piano lessons from hismother and had shown significant musical interest and promise in these earlyyears. Serious and consistent musical training, however, proved difficult untilhis mother found a position on the teaching staff of a teachers' trainingcollege 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 withLaszlo Erkel, a son of the distinguished Hungarian composer Ferenc Erkel, whilethe city itself offered opportunities for amateur performance and for hearing concertsand operas. In these years he developed his own very considerable ability as apianist, while composing in a largely derivative style. Completion of hisstudies at school was followed by the decision to embark on professional musicalstudies not in Vienna, where a scholarship was offered, but in Budapest,following the example of his school-fellow Erno Dohnanyi, four years hissenior.
In spite of ill health, which had dogged his childhoodand 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 througha study of recent scores by Richard Strauss and by a growing interest inHungarian national music, a field that had remained unexplored andmisunderstood by composers such as Liszt, whose Hungarian Rhapsodies had reliedon a more German and sophisticated source than the music of the people. Bartok'searly 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 ofthe Hungarian revolt against Austrian suzerainty in 1848, won predictablesuccess at home. His attention as a composer, however, was now drawn toHungarian folk-music in all its amazing regional variety .Into this heundertook considerable research, in collaboration with Zoltan Kodaly. Thisinterest had an overwhelming effect on his composition, allowing him todevelop, in a direction very different from that taken by Kodaly, a musicalidiom that was both fundamentally Hungarian and essentially his own. Ironicallyit was at home that Bartok was least able to make an impression on the publicas a composer. In 1907 he joined the staff of the Budapest Academy as a pianoteacher, holding the position for the next thirty years, but it was only abroadthat his work as a composer began to attract very considerable interest. Thesituation at home was not helped by the political events that followed thedefeat in 1918, the consequent division of Hungarian territory, the economicdifficulties of the country and the brief period of communist rule under BelaKun, followed by the inevitable reaction, under Admiral Horthy. The proposedestablishment of an archive of Hungarian folk-music under the direction of Bartokcame to nothing, but he was eventually able to retain his position at theAcademy, while gradually concentrating considerable attention on his career asa performer abroad, thus introducing his work to a wider audience than was everpossible in Hungary, even had general taste developed a greater degree ofdiscrimination and interest in the contemporary.
In the 1930s Bartok was able to devote himself moreconsistently to the classification and publication of research material, with,in 1936, an expedition to Anatolia, in the company of the Turkish composer AdnanSaygun, the results of which were published posthumously. Meanwhile politicalevents in Germany had their repercussions in his own professional life.
National Socialist censorship of music in Germany and questions about Bartok'sown racial credentials led him to forbid performances of his music in Germany,and the occupation of Austria, and consequent changes in the management and ownershipof Universal Edition, Bartok's publishers and for long his supporters, made thesituation still more difficult. A concert appearance in New York with Szigetiin the spring of 1940 was followed the next year by appointment as a VisitingAssistant at Columbia University, which he held for two years, until the end of1942. Bartok's final years were spent in deteriorating health and with somefinancial uncertainty, although there were commissions for new works, some ofwhich were fulfilled, while others were either rejected or left unfinished athis death in 1945. Significantly enough, this last period in America brought oneof his best known works, the Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by Koussevitzkyin memory of his wife, with the viola concerto, commissioned by WilliamPrimrose, and the third piano concerto left to be completed by others.
Bartok's first sonata for violin and piano was written in1903 and coolly received by Leopold Auer and other members of the jury of thePrix Rubinstein in Paris in 1905. The first numbered and published sonata, the ViolinSonata No.1, in three movements, was written in the last three months of1921 and dedicated to the Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Aranyi, great-niece ofJoachim, who gave the performance of the work with him in London on 24th March1922, followed by performance in Paris, in both places providing a verysignificant introduction of his work as a composer. Between July and Novemberin the same year he wrote a second sonata for Jelly d'Aranyi, which she first performedwith the composer in London on 7th May 1923. Both sonatas are highly originaland often astringent in idiom, at times showing overt Hungarian influence inrhythmic figuration, the choice of certain melodic intervals and at times inmood. It was for Jellyd'Aranyi that Ravel, a composer also fascinated by theproblems of combining string timbre with the percussive qualities of the piano,wrote his Tzigane.
Both Bartok's numbered violin sonatas have ambiguities oftonality, although the composer himself regarded the first as in C sharp minorand the second as in C major. The former ends, indeed, with a piano chord thatcombines 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 notesof the chord of C sharp minor, but the piano figuration, pedalled to producesonorities 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 whatmight appear to be part of a series of the twelve semitones of the scale, whilethe device of displaced octaves, in which some of the notes of a