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Béla Bartók’s (1881-1945) conservatory education, and indeed most higher education conducted in the Austro-Hungarian empire at the turn of the 20th century, was in German. Bartók was not pleased with just studying German or French composers, nor was he enamored of the conservatory’s Western European focus, but he did absorb the musical techniques and trends of turn-of-the-century Europe. After hearing a concert of Hungarian folk tunes in 1903, the young composer began to seek inspiration and enlightenment in his native music, too.

Generally, Hungarian folk music is zesty rhythmically, simple yet often quite quirky melodically, with relatively austere accompaniment. The composer’s Violin Sonata No. 2, however, is not an arrangement of a naïve folk song or a gypsy violin tune disguised as a classical concert work. The continuos, two-movement Sonata is intricate and complex, far removed from the Hungarian peasant tunes and Turkish wedding songs that Bartók had begun to study and chronicle.

It is also a very difficult work, written for a violin virtuoso of the highest caliber. Bartók described it to his concert agent in a 1924 letter: “The violin part of the two violin sonatas… is extraordinarily difficult, and it is only a violinist of the top class who has any chance of learning them…“ The Sonata was written in 1922 and premiered the next year in Berlin. It was dedicated to violinist Jelly d’Arányi, niece of famous violinist Joseph Joachim. Together, they gave the work its first performance in England.

Bartók claimed that the Second Sonata, his favorite of the two, was in the key of C major, though aside from the very last chord of the work – a C-major triad (the notes C, E, and G) spread out over a five octave range – the work never “sounds” C-major at all. Writer Paul Griffiths, perhaps tongue in cheek, called the C-major tonality in this work “heavily compromised.”

Likewise, the melodic material is more complex than most folk tunes. Bartók’s melodies make use of all 12 notes available in Western music (the black and white notes on the piano), whereas a folk tune might use only four or five notes. He also frequently uses glissando and portamento in the violin part, two techniques from roma (gypsy) fiddling which make use of the space between notes on the piano.

A single low note from the piano begins the Sonata. The violin immediately lurches into the improvisational style of a Romanian hora lunga; a very unconstrained piano part appears, not so much as accompaniment but as sparring partner. Chords are mostly not recognizable as major or minor, melodies are not propelled by the narrative of tonality, nor is a regular pulse easily discernable.

Bartók has dispensed with classical form and tonal practice in this work He also calls on the violinist to remove herself from the Romantic notion of playing the instrument. At several points in this movement, for example, the violin plays without vibrato, producing an ethereally cool and distant sound.

The second movement begins – without pause – with a more aggressive repeated piano rhythm followed by a pizzicato (plucked) response from the violin. A brash dance ensues, slightly madcap and double-jointed, with flurries of violin notes and big-fisted piano chords in both hands. The improvisatory character encountered in the first movement continues as the work curiously flip-flops from quiet and thoughtful to stormy and strident. The understated ending is as emotional and expressive as any in the violin repertory.

There is something very compelling in this music, a quality that draws the listener in. Is it the the music’s hidden compositional intricacies? The earthy folk influences? Its rhythmic vitality? Probably none of the above. It is more likely the composer’s ability to express something intangible in his unique language. “I cannot conceive of music that expresses absolutely nothing,” Béla Bartók once said. Amen to that.


— Dave Kopplin