Bartok Violin Concerto no. 2, BB 117

performed by Gil Shaham and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, or below by Viktoria Mullova and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Harding (maybe not a historical recording, but Mullova’s name is one I’ve recently learned and it’s nice to see a piece being performed, even if only online)

So yeah, it’s number two, not number one. And the ‘violin concerto no. 2’ of Bartok was for a long time simply known as the the violin concerto. His earlier, “suppressed” first concerto was not published until after the composer had died, and as I said, we wouldn’t be doing anything posthumous in this month’s little series. So here we are, the second violin concerto.

Many people might know of relocations to America of composers such as Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, or Schoenberg, especially Mahler, but people might not know of Bartok’s exodus from his home country. Like Schoenberg, it was under less than splendid circumstances, a bittersweet farewell, leaving behind a country and culture you love to save yourself and continue your life while horrible things make their way in. Bartok described it as “appalling”, what he knew was soon to happen in Europe, but he was able to get out.

I’d been speaking with a friend just a few days ago (at the time of this writing) about Schoenberg’s piano concerto, and how Mitsuko Uchida mentions his having been “ousted” from German speaking countries as an Austrian Jew, finding himself in America, and how all of that nostalgia and struggle can be heard in the concerto.

Well, can the same be said for Bartok?

The piece was written in 1938, and Wikipedia says of this time:

Bartók composed the concerto in a difficult stage of his life, when he was filled with serious concerns about the growing strength of fascism. He was of firm anti-fascist opinions, and therefore became the target of various attacks in pre-war Hungary.

Some L.A. Philharmonic program notes by Herbert Glass mention the completion of this concerto as one of the “bright spots in Bartók’s professional life during those last years in Hungary,” as it was “the fulfillment of a long-standing request for a violin concerto from Zoltán Székely, his frequent recital partner since 1921.” Székely wanted a traditional violin concerto, as one might imagine, but Bartok had his heart set on “a single-movement concerto set of variations,” but this idea did not thrill his soloist. There was ultimately a compromise, as we shall see, and I assume both parties were pleased with the result.

Take a listen to the first few bars of the work. Soft plucking from harp, strings, distant horns, and a polite, lyrical, even soft entrance from our violinist. This seems in such contrast with some of the music we heard earlier in the week, especially long stretches of the sonata. Considering the atmosphere, the background, surrounding the completion of the work, you might have a clue what’s going on.

There’s a lovely video of Gil Shaham being interviewed regarding this concerto, and there are a few things he points out about it. You can either listen really hard to try to decipher the German, or just pick up what isn’t (maddeningly) dubbed over, but he describes it as maybe “a farewell to Hungary.” He spoke also of thinking of Hungary as “the land of the violin”, and that the incredible thing about the music is that it’s ‘original’ and ‘folk music’, able to conjure up the sounds and textures of a land, a people, without resorting to direct quotes. He also says that despite the chromatic, at times seemingly-12-tone nature of the work and its modern language, Bartok wanted his melodies to be played the same way somebody would play Beethoven, to let them sing.

With all that in mind, listen to the first movement. Obviously there are things that stand out as similar: the exciting virtuosity of the solo part, and its perfect expression for the violin, but also, as Glass says, “the violin’s long, rhapsodic opening theme, which with its insistence on the intervals of fourths, fifths, and seconds could come from nowhere but Hungary.”Are you seeing a theme with Bartok’s music? (Pun not intended?) It doesn’t quite stay as lyrical and peaceful as that, though. The orchestra repeats the violin’s line, and things get more lively, but we’re seeing a true sonata form here in the first movement.

It’s something that Shaham mentions in the above video, that the L.A. Phil program notes mention, so I quote them regarding the chromatic second theme. Menuhin apparently spoke with Bartok regarding its chromatic nature:

“[Bartók] was trying to find out how well I had grasped [the Concerto], asking particularly my opinion of a passage in the first movement. ‘It’s rather chromatic,’ I offered. ‘Yes, it’s chromatic,’ he said, but then nudging me toward the point he was making: ‘You see that it comes very often?’ Which it does, some 32 times, never exactly the same. ‘Well, I wanted to show Schoenberg that one can use all 12 tones and still remain tonal.’

Well, this is clearly no Beethoven, so Bartok’s use of the word ‘tonal’ is still in the context of the music of the 20th century, but compare his concerto to Schoenberg’s and there’s a clear difference. Schoenberg had no intention of writing music that seemed tonal, but Bartok took advantage of all the styles and techniques he knew of to create an expressive, unique, powerful work for the violin.

As for the second movement, it’s theme with six variations. Bartok still got the variations he wanted, and they seem to express all the different facets of Bartok’s music, from frenetic rhythms and drive to more expansive lyrical passages, and new instrumentation and color at each turn, finishing quietly after a restatement of the original theme, an octave higher, as if we’ve completed a long journey, finishing the arc of the middle movement.

But we’re only two thirds over. Furious, almost frenzied strings break the almost-pacific mood with their first utterance in the finale. There are two special things to note about this movement, aside, of course, from its powerful excitement and beauty. For one, it is expected to see a rondo as the finale in a piece like this, but instead of a rondo, we get another sonata-form movement. That might not mean too much to you, but listen closely, especially if this is your second or third listen to the piece. What’s there?

Well, like anything, you can talk about the piece in technical terms: the violin techniques used, the constituent parts of the music (chromatic, atonal, whatever), or of its structure. But you could also just sit back and enjoy it like the composer had intended, and if you do that, you’ll notice something familiar. You might not be able to put your finger on exactly what it is, but I’ll tell you. Or rather those L.A. Phil program notes do. It says that the finale’s “main melodic thread is a rhythmically altered version of the first movement’s principal theme.” I was pleased to read this because I was sure I’d identified it somewhere, and was pretty confident I wasn’t making musical things up. This brings unity to the work, two sonata-form movements with related musical material bookending a central theme-and-variations movement. Did Bartok in essence get the single-movement concerto he wanted? There are three clear movements here, yes, but overall, there seems almost to be enough to tie this together as one large arch of a work, more than just what’s at the surface, or just what’s happening right then and there.

If you give it a few listens (maybe even just one), you’ll hear it all: the fully chromatic passages, the nostalgia, frustration, even fear, the folk-rhythms and Hungarian-ness of the work, the clear, poignant personality of the composer, but even all of that aside, you’ll hear beautiful music. Listen to it like Beethoven. Why wouldn’t you?

This piece is yet another example of history preserved in art, crystallized for posterity in a 40-minute concerto, a glimpse into someone’s mind that they put onto paper with the intention of sharing with the world, and that’s something that always fascinates me.

That brings Bartok to an end for this week, but stay tuned for our third composer to make his appearance in our little tour of violin works that aren’t German or Austrian. See you soon.



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