“It is only a violinist of the top class who has any chance of learning them…”
Béla Bartók (1881–1945)
Violin Sonata No. 2, Sz. 76
Molto moderato –
Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, much like his Australian contemporary Percy Grainger, was fascinated by folk music and travelled the countryside during his early career collecting and transcribing Magyar music with fellow composer Zoltán Kodály.
The influence of this research – which continued throughout his career, the composer spending all of his holidays in the countryside – permeates his bristling Second Violin Sonata. But it is no straightforward arrangement of folk tunes, Bartók instead incorporating elements of Hungarian peasant songs into his own, complex harmonic language.
This music emerges from Bartók’s most productive period, between the end of World War I and his relocation to the USA in 1940 to escape Nazi Germany’s growing influence in Hungary. He wrote his two numbered Violin Sonatas during a 14-month period between 1921 and 1922, around the same time as he was working on his ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin.
The two Sonatas are fiendish for the player. “It is only a violinist of the top class who has any chance of learning them,” Bartók wrote. He dedicated both to fellow Hungarian Jelly d’Arányi. The violinist was the niece of famous 19th-century virtuoso Joseph Joachim – to whom Brahms and Schumann had dedicated violin concertos – and she would soon be the dedicatee of Ravel’s blistering Tzigane (she was, unlike Ginette Neveu, unsuccessful in her attempt to wring a violin sonata out of Poulenc). D’Arányi premiered Bartók’s Violin Sonata No.2, the composer at the piano, in London in 1923.
While Bartók’s embrace of an atonal palette echoes the international trends in contemporary music at the time, the two connected movements of the Second Violin Sonata recall the slow lassú and energetic friss of the Hungarian csárdás dance form. The long, improvisational violin melody of the first movement – spooling out against a sparse piano part – has also been likened to the Romanian hora lunga. Bartók couches these folk elements, however, in some of his most adventurous harmonies, the dissonant interval of a tritone featuring prominently throughout the work. The second movement begins quietly, with moody plucked notes from the violin, but the wild dance that soon escalates shows just why the violinist needs to be “top class”.
Angus McPherson © 2021