Bartók: Contrasts, Sz. 111

performed by Karl Schlechta, clarinet; Susanne Kaldor, violin; Akos Hernadi, piano; or below, in what might be this release

We jump ahead now to a much later work in Bartóks’ output, having given him our attention for an entire week, even if it’s only been four pieces.

Even if you know almost nothing about Bartók, you may still know that he is Hungarian and associate him with a deep interest in and use of folk music and rhythms in much of his work. Well, I hope you’ve read the previous Bartók articles from this past week, but they’re not really prerequisites.

Of this work, completed in 1938, for clarinet, violin and piano, Wikipedia says:

It is based on Hungarian and Romanian dance melodies and has three movements with a combined duration of 17–20 minutes. Bartók wrote the work in response to a letter from violinist Joseph Szigeti, although it was officially commissioned by clarinetist Benny Goodman.

Well that’s interesting, isn’t it?

This work actually comes shortly before the composer’s move to the United States in 1940, due to World War II. There’s no mention of Benny Goodman (meetings, collaborations or anything) in Bartók’s Wikipedia article, but it’s certainly an interesting little tidbit.

Bartók had originally written it with technology in mind, a two-movement work of less than eight minutes, allowing each movement to fit on one side of a gramophone record, which apparently only held about 8 minutes of total playing time. This first, very short version, was entitled Rhapsody, and was actually premiered by Goodman, Szigeti and pianist Endre Petri in Carnegie Hall on January 9, 1939. Imagine what he’d do with a whole CD.

This original two-movement form was what are now the first and last movements. Bartók added the middle movement and gave the work its current name, and Szigeti, Goodman and Bartók gave the premiere of the work’s final form on April 21, 1940, also at Carnegie hall. It was published a few years later, in 1942, and dedicated to Szigeti and Goodman.

Bartók gives us titles for the movements in his native Hungarian:

  • Verbunkos – Recruiting Dance
  • Pihenő – “Relaxation”
  • Sebes – Fast Dance

In the Structure section of the Wikipedia article, there are a few small diagrams elucidating the harmonic layout of the piece. It “features examples of alternate or dual-thirds (C and C in an A triad).” There’s more nuts-and-bolts discussion in that article, but I’ll just pick out a few parts here and there.

The first movement, Verbunkos, begins with a buoyant pizzicato that leads to the clarinet’s opening, introducing the main melody of this movement, from Wikipedia:


There’s an alluring nature to this smooth melody, seductive even, almost jazzy, even though we’re talking clearly about Hungarian and Romanian folk music. So what about that title?

Wiki says that “Verbunkos was a stately and stylized Hungarian Recruiting Dance ‘measured in rhythm and rich in melodic embellishments'” characterized by the above theme, and that this music was “commonly played at military recruitings.” I wonder what the exact approach was to try to get people to join the army. It’s not inspiring or courageous, not really stirring in that heroic, charismatic way, but certainly kind of alluring.

The second movement, while titled “Relaxation” in Hungarian (?), has alternatively described by others as ‘volcanic’ in nature. It’s the shortest of the bunch, and does begin somewhat languidly. It’s the piano that seems the aggressor in stirring things up, and while the movement never really explodes into violence like the ‘volcanic’ term would suggest, it’s certainly anxious, quietly tense.

The finale is, suitably, a ‘fast dance,’ where the violin retunes a few strings up and down a semitone, and is clearly of a folk nature. It’s certainly a dance in musical style, yes, but even among the three musicians as well. They seem to swirl and turn around each other, responding and reacting as the music unfolds. It also has its passages of really surprising bigness, an almost orchestral sound.

But don’t forget the title of this piece: Contrasts. That applies probably to the individual movements themselves, but also to the phrases in this most outwardly showy final movement. The violin has a cadenza here, and that, along with its overall style, as Wiki mentions, may liken it to the finale of the first violin sonata. It ends with some mischief.

While this work isn’t among his more ‘serious’ or enduring compositions, like his string quartets or sonatas, I’d say it’s a great primer to getting used to Bartók’s more modern voice, the folk tunes, all of that. Like I’ve said a lot this week, Bartók has a very particular sound, and it might take a little bit of warming up to, a few passes to begin to appreciate, but once you do, there’s nothing anywhere quite like him.


It’s all about finding a way in, keeping an open mind. Perhaps it’s good advice to go back and revisit stuff every now and then that you thought you couldn’t stand before, just to make sure. I have been urged by some fellow music folks to go back and try Chopin’s piano concertos again, specifically Zimerman’s recordings, which I do own. I think I’m just quite comfortable with my strong distaste for those works, and just not interested enough to revisit them, but perhaps I should.

In any case, that’s all for now from Bartók, but we’ll be seeing more from him next month, actually. Next week, we’ll be jumping way ahead to much more modern music for the piano as we round out this month’s piano stuff, before moving on to something entirely different, so do please stay tuned and thanks very much for reading.


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