About this Piece
One can hardly point to a composer whose music is more colorful, vital, provocative, and variegated, and above all, more personal, than Bela Bartók's (1881-1945). It was his unique destiny, having thoroughly absorbed the influences of Brahms, Strauss, Liszt, Debussy and Stravinsky, to find the single element that was completely to chemicalize the influencing components and render them a pure Bartókian solution. That element was the folk music of his native Hungary and its environs.
The folk element was multi-faceted, containing such highly distinctive features as modes and exotic scale combinations; irregular rhythms; severely simple melodies whose rise and fall stemmed from speech patterns, and their opposite number, extended, ornate melismas that pour forth with rhapsodic intensity; driving, barbaric energy and, in contrast, breathless, wondrous calms. By 1938, when clarinetist Benny Goodman and violinist Joseph Szigeti commissioned Bartók for a work, the composer had clearly defined his style in orchestral works, concertos, much piano music and chamber music, including five of his eventual six string quartets. Until that time he had not used a wind instrument in a chamber work, as many of his colleagues Stravinsky, Hindemith, etc. - had done. When contemplating how he would combine the disparate timbres of the clarinet, violin and the de rigeur piano, he apparently decided to capitalize on their differences thus the title reflecting this approach: Contrasts.
On the evidence of the resultant work, he must also have felt duty bound to furnish the commissioners with the lion's share of the instrumental glory. Although he himself was to perform the composition with Goodman and Szigeti, he contrived a piano part that, while far from perfunctory or negligible, is still not as prominent as a virtuoso pianist-composer might have supplied for himself. Rather than having a central role, the keyboard is primarily called into service for all manner of color and support gestures ostinatos, trills, glissandos, ringing chords, rhythmic punctuation, etc. On the other hand, acknowledging the mastery of the two renowned performers for whom he was writing, Bartók exploited the possibilities of both clarinet and violin to the hilt. As is not uncommon in a work, the clarinetist is called upon to use both the A and B flat instruments; in an unusual practice, the violinist here also must have two instruments one tuned traditionally, the other tuned to G sharp D A E flat, for use at the beginning of the last movement. Playing thus scordatura (mis-tuned), the violin produces diminished fifths on two pairs of open strings, a diabolical effect Bartók obviously was seeking for the vivid dance movement.
Contrasts' first movement is a Verbunkos, which was literally a recruiting dance executed by a group from the hussar regiments to entice young Hungarian boys into military service. The Sebes (the last movement) is a fast dance that the boys improvise before signing on. In the matter of contrasts throughout the work, they emanate as much from the rhapsodic, quixotic shifts of temperament as from the differing timbres of the instruments. The first movement is replete with swaggering rhythms and insinuating melodies, expansive, brilliant passage work (multiple stops, tremolos, wide ranging arpeggios for the violin; rapid scales and arpeggios, shifts of register arid, at the end of the Verbunkos, a demanding cadenza, for the clarinet).
The Lento middle movement (Pihenö rest) conjures that mysterious kind of night atmosphere at which Bartók was an incomparable master. This is a world of dense black, of things stalking (violin and clarinet are lost creatures) and of frightening movement (piano tremolos, streams of clarinet trills, violin stark in its fourths and fifths). The scordatura opening of the final movement is no less darkly evocative than the slow movement, but ultimately dynamism and barbaric energy, insinuating syncopation and rhapsodic temperament, as well as a violin cadenza, endow the music with a blazing, in contrast to a frightening, intensity.
Orrin Howard served for 20 years as the Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives.