Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1, Sz. 75
In the 1920s Bartók’s music reached a peak of modernity and dissonance from which he retreated in his later years and which bestowed on him, in the years between the wars, a reputation for aggressive ugliness that neither Schoenberg nor Stravinsky ever matched. With hindsight we can understand that the horrified critics of the time were faced with sounds they had never expected to hear in their lives, but also that this music is far from ugly or formless. It may not display the beautiful lines we love in Mozart and Schubert, but it is full of lyrical feeling, of youthful energy, of highly inventive rhythms and harmonies, and it has a shapeliness that can quite reasonably be seen to be a legacy of the classical masters.
Both of Bartók’s two violin sonatas were composed for the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi, Joachim’s great-niece, and it was she who gave the first performances of both works in London in, respectively, 1922 and 1923, with the composer at the piano. Both players are required to display extraordinary agility, leaping from one end of the range to the other, and the pianist is given an unending series of wide, dissonant chords. Neither player ever shares the other’s material (this is not Mozart) or even seems to react to it; they often appear to be inhabiting different musical worlds only to come together at crucial moments and to enjoy each other’s rhapsodizing in a thoroughly spontaneous and uninhibited fashion. Bartók’s extensive work collecting Hungarian folksong had a great deal to do with the rhythmic intricacies of this music, as well as its modal inflections and improvisatory feeling. The composers he most admired at that time were Debussy, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, all of whom left their mark on this music. Yet it has much more of Bartók’s personal stamp, as if he were testing his own intuition and carving out the style that he perfected in his later works.
In none of the three movements does the tempo stay in place for long, but the first and last are generally energetic and lively, the middle movement much more tranquil. What could be more classical than that? The first movement’s sonata form can be felt when the violinist returns to the cantilena of the opening, with long notes held against a wash of piano sound. Agitation alternates with repose and major clashes with minor.
The central movement gives more space to the violin to explore some graceful melodic shapes, while the finale recalls the tireless strumming of folk music with a display of whirlwind energy from both partners.
Hugh Macdonald is Avis Blewett Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He has published books on Scriabin and Berlioz, and his book of essays Beethoven’s Century appeared in 2008.