Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

[Bullet6] String Quartet No. 2 Op. 17 Sz. 67 (1917)

[Bullet6] Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano (1938)

[Bullet6] Rumanian Folk Dances (1915) and Sonatina (1915)

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

String Quartet No. 2 Op. 17 Sz. 67 (1917)[Bela]

"The tragedy of Bartók was not only the lifelong struggle with poor health and constantly recurring financial difficulties, but also the neglect of his works, the ridicule of the press, and the lack of response of the audience on those rare occasions when he heard his works performed.


This man whose music had an elemental sweep, barbaric rhythms, and penetrating force, never weighed more than 116 pounds, and sometimes as little as 87. His slow, even, measured walk was characteristic of his personality . When he came out on the Carnegie Hall stage, with delicate steps, to receive the ovation at the American premiere of his Violin Concerto, one New York newspaper said that he looked like a botany professor from a girls college.


But the small and fragile body was endowed with an iron and an uncompromising character. Although he spoke deliberately, with a soft voice, he could say a great deal without using an unnecessary or unimportant word. This mild-mannered composer refused to utter a word he did not believe. He was eminently correct in his attitude toward others and expected the same in return. But he was never as severe with others as he was with himself.


He had blue eyes, which revealed a sharp, keen mind. He was interested in everything; science, foreign countries, unusual foods, literature, languages, and especially philology. He was, in fact, more interested in things than in people. This knowledge of fields other than music was not superficial; he penetrated deeply into a subject and had a strong passion for accuracy. His crystal clear mind was quick to see the humorous side of a situation, and his life was simple and modest.


He not only never had luxury, but even resented the thought of it. He refused to ask favors or to accept help. His pride and integrity showed the same strength that his music radiated. It was not easy to help him, as he did not want charity.


It was part of the "Bartók tragedy" that not until immediately after his death did his popularity spread to every part of the world. On the other hand, fate did smile at Bartók. In his last two years, he enjoyed, finally the applause of the widest public and not only of the selected audiences of the various small societies of contemporary music."

Erno Balogh

pianist, teacher, composer, and friend of Bartók

The New Book of Modern Composers

David Wen editor, 1942, 1961


"The opening allegro took me straight back to childhood and gave me in turn the rusty windlass of a well, the interlinking noises of a goods train that is being shunted, then the belly rumbling of a little boy acutely ill after a raid on an orchard, and finally the singular alarmed noises of poultry being worried to death by a scotch terrier. The second movement gave me continuously and throughout its short length the noise of a November wind in telegraph poles on a lonely country road. The third movement began with a dog howling at midnight, proceeded to imitate the regurgitations of the less refined or lower-middle-class type of water closet cistern, modulating thence into the mass snoring of a naval dormitory around the dawn, and concluded inconsequentially with the cello reproducing the screech of an ungreased wheelbarrow. The fourth movement took me straight back to the noises I made myself, on wet days indoors, at the age of six, by stretching and plucking a piece of elastic. And the fifth movement reminded me immediately and persistently and vividly of something I have never thought of since the only time I heard it: the noise of a Zulu village in the Glasgow Exhibition, a hubbub all the more singular, because it had a background of skirling highland bagpipes. Both noises emerged in this final movement of this Fourth Quartet of Béla Bartók."

(from a letter written by Alan Dent, quoted in The Later Ego by James Agate, London, 1951)


The above is an entry from Nicholas Slonimskys Lexicon of Musical Invective. I suspect that had he wished, Mr. Slonimsky could have compiled a volume of this work devoted entirely to Bartók. Although the above quote refers to the Fourth Quartet, such a flight of creative writing needs but a very small impetus to start it off, and the author would have found it as apt a clever description of the Second Quartet as well.


Another extremely fastidious composer, Bartók even included timings down to the second, as well as the conventional metronome markings in his printed scores. And of the giants of Twentieth Century music, he alone provided, as it were, a lexicon of his own musical vocabulary in his six volume series of progressive studies for piano entitled Microkosmos. This work runs the gamut of elements that comprise Bartóks unique style; from simple unison melodies, to various modal scales and Folk music styles to canons and the various devices and tricks of imitative counterpoint, as well as unusual interval combinations, chord clusters, and his "barbaric" rhythms. Microkosmos culminates in a set of six dances in Bulgarian rhythm; asymmetric, compound rhythms which are featured as well in the Second String Quartet.


Bartóks six String Quartets are now looked upon as worthy successors to the Quartets of Beethoven. They were composed throughout his career, from an unpublished early work dating from 1899 and not part of the Six, to the Sixth quartet composed in 1939. The Second Quartet was written over an unusually long period of time for Bartók; 3 years, from 1915 to 1917. However the date ascribed to the work by the composer can be treated with some latitude. Bartók was living in Rakoskeresztur, Hungary, during this time and the hardships of the war years hung heavily on him. He was compelled to interrupt his work on the Second String Quartet and several other compositions during this period.


String Quartet No. 2 was first performed on March 3, 1918 by the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet and was dedicated to them. The violin melody of the first movement is very similar to the opening melody of the Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 written several years later. The principle element of this movement is contained in the dynamic exposition of the first two bars. This dynamism, a key component of Bartók's technique, is intensified and then recapitulated in a calmer, more modified melodic line that still retains its initial tension. In the second movement, the Rondo and Theme variations are united so that the Rondo is presented as a series of variations, each recapitulation taking place on a higher plane. The drumlike note repetitions of this movement as well as the theme's melodic pattern recall Arab folk music. In the third movement, we hear for the first time the Eastern European folk-lament rhythms that so characterize Bartók's later work.


(Incidentally, one can find Bulgarian rhythms aplenty in George and Ira Gershwins 1930 musical about goings on at a dude ranch, Girl Crazy. For instance the song: "Could you use me?"; " Oh, Im the chappie to make you happy: Ill tie your shoes-ies and chase your blues-ies..." 3+3+2 - three plus three plus twos-ies.)

1995-96 Season, Program V, Sunday May 12, 1996

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Bela Bartók (1881-1945)

Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano (1938)


Bartóks only trio came to be composed as a result of a request by the Hungarian violinist Josef Szigeti, who had emigrated to the United States, and the "King of Swing" clarinetist Benny Goodman. After a meeting with Szigeti, who early in the summer of 1938 broached the idea to him, and then a meeting onthe Riviera with Goodman, who was on a tour in Europe, Szigeti wrote a letter formally commissioning the work. Bartók was initially not enthusiastic about the proposition, particularly the idea of writing for a jazz musician. But his meeting with Goodman and his subsequent familiarity with the work of Goodmans trio (Teddy Wilson on piano, and Gene Krupa on drums) through recordings won him over to the project and he completed the original work in little over a month. The commission had some requests. "If possible", Szigeti wrote, "the composition should consist of two independent parts (with the possibility of playing them separately - like the First Rhapsody for violin) and, of course, we hope that it will also contain brilliant clarinet and violin cadenzas." In addition, Goodman wanted a work consisting of two brief movements that could be recorded, one per side, on 12" 78 RPM phonograph records. Bartók complied with these requests and the original work entitled Rhapsody following the traditional model of the two movement Hungarian Rhapsody was premiered at Carnegie Hall on January 9, 1939 by Szigeti, Goodman and pianist Endre Petri. The work was received enthusiastically.


During his lifetime, his works were often described with such scatological epithets as "mere ordure" (piano music), or caustic but imaginative: "the singular alarmed noise of poultry being worried to death by a scotch terrier" (Fourth Quartet). In a letter dated February 8, 1939, Szigeti wrote to Bartók, "The second part had to be repeated and we also played the second part of that movement because my E string had snapped!....through Benny Goodman, the premiere aroused such a clamour in the press which could never be hoped for by a composer or artist in our milieu..." However, he did add that he did not think that an orchestral version would be needed "for the time being." (Bartók had provided versions with orchestra of both his rhapsodies for Violin and Piano).


On April 21, 1940, the work was again played at Carnegie Hall, with Szigeti and Goodman, this time, joined by Bartók himself at the piano and with the addition of a third movement (Pihenö - Relaxation) placed between the two original movements. It was renamed Contrasts and recorded a month later by Columbia Records, with Szigeti, Goodman and Bartók. This recording is still available today on compact disc.


The work is indeed a study in contrasts: the tone color of the three different instruments, the different musical idioms, the jazz and classical players, the moods and tempi.


The first movement, Verbunkos, opens with pizzicatos, according to Szigeti, inspired by the blues movement of the Ravel Sonata for Violin and Piano (SCS 1991 season). It is to Bartóks credit that he did not fill this work with the ersatz "jazz musik" that many European composers were tempted to introduce into their works. Except for this fragment at the beginning (perhaps, humorously intended), the work remains in Bartóks own musical language all the way through.


The title Verbunkos refers to a Hungarian recruiting or enlistment dance in which an officer in full dress uniform would strut and prance around to spirited music, with the aim of enticing young men to enlist in the army. (Beeeeee.....all that you can beeee.....) The dance was used from about 1780 until 1849, when the Austro-Hungarian government decided that conscription was a more efficient way to snag an army. Liszts famous Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, Kodalys Intermezzo from Hary Janos and Bartóks own two Violin Rhapsodies are all inspired by this dance. The Verbunkos usually consisted of two movements; first slow (lassu), then fast (friss).


The second movement Pihenö (Relaxations) is just that. It is one of Bartóks nocturnes, featuring those sounds of a summer night in the country; the chirpings and flitterings of nocturnal frogs, birds and insects. Bartók was a man who listened most carefully and intently to the sounds of nature.


The third movement Sebes (Fast dance) contains some very interesting features, not the least of which is that the violinist needs two violins to perform the movement. The four strings of a violin are normally tuned in perfect fifths, starting from the low G string to D to A to E. Bartók instructs the violinist to raise the low G string to G# and lower the top string to E flat (G#,D,A,E flat) The interval between the D and A String remains a perfect fifth, but because of the raising of the G and lowering of the E, this perfect fifth is sandwiched between two diminished fifths or tritones. In western music, the tritone or diminished fifth was called "the devil in music". It was to be avoided in voice leading, harmonic progressions and counterpoint. It was presumed to be a difficult interval to sing, and was banned from church music. In the language of art music, it has been used to evoke the sinister or worse. The Satanic works of Liszt and Scriabin are redolent with it. It is the devil fiddling in Saint Saens Dance Macabre and "Freund Hein" - The Fiddler of Death in Mahlers Fourth Symphony.


However, Bartók, the pioneer ethno-musicologist, found the tritone in use in much of the modal folk music of central Europe, where it was sung with no difficulty whatsoever and was not associated with evil. And so the violin is tuned so that the player can play these tritones on open strings. This abnormal tuning is called scordatura. Since the violinist cannot retune during performance, he also needs a violin tuned normally.


Another interesting feature of the movement are the Bulgarian rhythms contained therein. Bartók also learned these compound rhythms from his folk music studies and used them freely in his own compositions. This movement contains a rhythm consisting of thirteen beats divided in threes and twos (3+2+3/2+3).

1993-94 Season, Program IV, Sunday March 20, 1994

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I appreciate the flavor of music; what need have I for the sounds from the strings?

T’ao Ch’ien (alias "Yüanming"), 372-427 A.D.

Bela Bartok (1881–1945)

Rumanian Folk Dances (1915), Arranged for Violin and Piano by Zoltán Székely

Sonatina (1915), Arranged for Violin and Piano by André Gertler


The Rumanian Folk Dances and the Sonatina are works based on folksongs and dances collected by Bartók from peasants and Gypsies during his pioneering ethno-musicological field trips through Hungary in 1910-14. Both works were first arranged for solo piano, though Bartók would have originally heard these tunes played on fiddle, shepherd’s flute, or bagpipe. In these, as well as his other folksong arrangements, Bartók provides simple yet imaginative settings for the folk tune, like a master picture framer crafts a matte and frame to compliment, yet not compete with, the painting or drawing it surrounds. Even in the simplest setting, Bartók often varies a voice in the accompaniment, slightly changing the "color" of the chord, avoiding verbatim repetition of a phrase. All of this happens in the briefest of time spans. Between these two pieces, you will hear 12 folk tunes in the space of 8 minutes (Bartók scrupulously notates the duration of each movement, down to the second, in the score). He never inflates folk material. Paradoxically, this is also what makes these settings "art music." Dance music, given its function, must be repeated. A dance, where people are movin’ to the groove, cannot last for 25 seconds. In their brevity, they share a quest for concision sought by such other "avant-garde" composers such as Schönberg and Webern to name the most obvious.

 There is, however, a difference between these two works. The Rumanian Folk Dances presents each of the seven dances (the sixth movement is actually comprised of two distinct folk tunes) without any reprise of material. The Sonatina, though partitioned into three movements, is actually comprised of five folk tunes. The first movement uses two dances, the first of which is repeated to give an A-B-A form. The Finale is also comprised of two dances. After they are heard, Bartók combines fragments of both to form a coda. The composer here manipulates the folk material for use in "art music" forms; thus the justification for the title "Sonatina" (little sonata).

 Though both works started out as piano solos, they also appeared in arrangements for violin and piano as well as orchestral transcriptions by the composer. For its orchestral arrangement, Bartók gave the Sonatina a sexier title; "Transylvanian Dances". This was, of course, years before the annexation of Transylvania by Hollywood. Actually, at the time Bartók collected the folk music, which comprise these two works Transylvania was part of Hungary. The "Rumanian" music he collected was from Rumanian inhabitants of Transylvania. In 1920, the Treaty of Trianon ceded Transylvania to Rumania. This resulted in strained relations between Hungary and Rumania, and prevented Bartók from continuing to collect folk music in the region.

 At the time of this writing, I don’t know the order in which these two pieces will be performed. Let’s assume I get it wrong. Since I have more specific information about Sonatina, I’ll start with the Rumanian Folk Dances. The first dance, which translates into English as "dance with a staff" or stick (what the dancer is doing with the stick is anyone’s guess) is from the Maros-Torda region. Bartók reported that it was played to him by two Rumanian Gypsy violinists from Mŕramaros. The Brŕul is a dance that involves the use of a waistband or sash.

The lovely third dance, in which the violin imitates the sound of a rustic flute, while the piano acts as a drone, translates roughly into "the Stomper." Both of these dances are from Torontŕl. Another lovely melody is presented in The Dance of the Buscum People from Torda-Aranyos. Next we have a Rumanian "Polka" from Bihar. Finally, the last movement is made up of two fast dances; Manuntelul for couples, from Behar and Torda-Aranyos.

 As for the Sonatina; the following comments were made by Bartók himself, on July 2, 1944 during a radio broadcast of a live performance by his wife Edith Pásztory-Bartók at the Brooklyn Museum, as part of station WNYC’s "Ask the Composer" series. "This sonatina was originally conceived as a group of Rumanian folk dances for piano. The three parts which Mrs. Bartók will play were selected from a group and given the title of Sonatina. The first movement, which is called "Bagpipers", is a dance – these are two dances played by two bagpipe players, the first by one and the second by another. The second movement is called "Bear Dance" – this was played for me by a peasant violinist on the G and D string, on the lower strings in order to have it more similar to a bear’s voice. Generally the violin players use the E string. And the last movement contains also two folk melodies played by peasant violin players." Not terribly informative or enlightening, but I couldn’t resist. The unfortunate man was in poor health; flat broke, and would be dead as the result of leukemia in a little over a year.

Some final tidbits: the first tune of the first movement is designated "ardeleana" a round dance, danced by two women and a man. The Bear’s Dance is from Máramaros County, located in Northern Transylvania. It was played by a Gypsy violinist, accompanied by a strummed two-stringed guitar. The Finale consists of two dances, unaccompanied fiddle pieces. The first "A Turcii" is a solo dance by a man who wears an animal headdress with a movable beak, which he causes to clatter in time to the music by means of strings. The Aturcii is performed during the winter solstice. However, the tune can also be used in a Manuntelul (couple’s dance) in case it ever comes up. And finally the last dance is called Babaleuca. Didn’t Dészi Arnász perform that? 

1999-2000 Season, Program IV, Sunday April 9, 2000

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All original text copyright 2000 by Joseph Way