Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 2

Concerto No. 2 in B minor for Violin and Orchestra

Béla Victor János Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania, on March 25, 1881, and died in New York City on September 26, 1945. He began this concerto in August 1937 and completed it in September of the following year. Zoltán Székely, who had commissioned the work, asked for a more brilliant ending, and Bartók provided this by December 31, 1938. It is the first of the two alternative endings printed in the score and the one played at these performances. Székely introduced the concerto on March 23, 1939, Willem Mengelberg conducting the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. The first North American performance took place on January 21, 1943 with Artur Rodzinski conducting the Cleveland Orchestra and Tossy Spivakovsky as soloist. The San Francisco Symphony first played the work in January 1948, when Spivakovsky was soloist and Pierre Monteux conducted. The most recent performances, in April 2002, were led by Herbert Blomstedt, and the soloist was Christian Tetzlaff, who performs tonight. The orchestra consists of two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets (second doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons (second doubling contrabassoon), four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, two snare drums, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, celesta, harp, and strings. Performance time: about thirty-six minutes.

Béla Bartók and Zoltán Székely, nearly twenty-three years Bartók’s junior, became friends about 1925. Székely's principal teachers—Zoltán Kodály in composition and Jenö Hubay for violin—were friends of Bartók (though the relationship with Hubay was beginning to go about this time), and Bartók was altogether impressed by the young man with his cultivated, sensitive, responsible musicianship and his elegantly brilliant violin playing. In 1928 Bartók wrote his Second Rhapsody for Székely, and the two men often gave sonata recitals together. In 1935, Székely founded the Hungarian String Quartet, which was to give countless performances of Bartók's quartets and made memorable and authoritative recordings of them. For a time, though, Székely was interested in continuing his solo career, and so it came about that in 1937 he asked Bartók to write him a concerto.

He probably did not know that Bartók had written a violin concerto thirty years earlier, but that work, whose genesis was tied to a long-gone romance with the violinist Stefi Geyer, was neither performed nor published until nearly thirteen years after the composer’s death. As far as everyone except Bartók and Stefi Geyer-Schulthess (still, or again, a good friend) was concerned, the new concerto would be Bartók's first for the violin.

Bartók did not play the violin. Few composers, though, have understood the instrument so fully, and perhaps it is in his music for strings—the six quartets, the two sonatas for violin and piano, the sonata for violin solo, the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, the Forty-four Duets, and of course the present concerto—that he is at his most unfailingly inventive and effective.

What he really wanted to do in response to Székely’s commission was to write a set of variations, but Székely insisted on a full-dress three-movement concerto. Bartók amused himself by contriving a means of pleasing both himself and his friend. His three-movement concerto includes a formal set of variations as its slow movement, but beyond that, the principal themes of the finale are variations of their first-movement counterparts. Like Ferdinand David in the Mendelssohn Concerto, Joseph Joachim in the Brahms and Dvořák, and Samuel Dushkin in the Stravinsky, Székely clearly left his mark on many details of the piece written for him. He and Bartók spent a lot of time together while the work was in progress, but because of commitments for an American tour the composer could not, to his disappointment, attend the Amsterdam premiere. It was not until October 1943, when Tossy Spivakovsky played it with Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony, that he was able to hear the concerto himself, and with obvious relief he reported to Joseph Szigeti: “I was most happy that there is nothing wrong with the scoring; nothing needs to be changed, even though orchestral ‘accompaniment’ of the violin is a very delicate business.” The letter continues with an outburst against the “brutishness” of the New York critic who “doesn’t believe that this work will ever displace the Beeth. Mendel. Brahms concerti. How is it possible to write such an idiotic thing: what fool fit for the madhouse would want to displace these works with his own?”

Bartók begins with gentle preluding on the harp, which is soon joined by lower strings, also plucked, and it is against this background that the soloist enters with a melody at once rhapsodic and elegant. Some sense of rhapsody, of quasi-improvisation, is always present in this concerto, whether in the expansive and always unpredictable flights of lyric song or in the scrubbings and rushings of Bartók’s fiercely energetic bravura style. Bartók has built a formal cadenza of his own into the end of the first movement. At the beginning of that cadenza, before the soloist has induced the orchestra to keep quiet, Bartók has introduced quarter-tones in the violin part (as he would again in the solo Sonata of 1944).

For the Andante tranquillo, Bartók has invented a delicate theme of a haunting, “speaking” character, exquisitely accompanied by just a few strings with timpani and harp. In Variation 1, the violin part is elaborated in quicker figurations, and the accompaniment is further reduced. In Variation 2, the violin is less shy, becoming more sonorous and covering a greater range, while the harp is still fascinated by the running sixteenths of the previous variation. Dissonance enters in Variation 3, along with sharp accents and a deliberately “rough” style. The theme is shorn of ornament in Variation 4; it moves into cellos and basses, while the solo violin hangs garlands of alternating trills and scales. To this, Bartók adds a mysterious close with many canonic imitations. Variation 5 is a perkily scored scherzo. Variation 6 presents new fantasies in embellishment, texture, and counterpoint, and leads to a coda in which the movement quietly dissolves.

That last ppp is broken into by the rambunctious, dance-like opening of the finale, a rich and brilliant piece whose structure as well as whose themes have correspondences in the first movement. Bartók’s original close had the soloist bow out twenty-six measures before the end. Székely was of course right to ask that the work finish “like a concerto, not like a symphony.” I don’t know whether the original ending has ever been played in concert (it has been recorded), but with its nine bars of trombone glissandos, followed by similar wildness in the trumpets and horns, it is one of Bartók’s most striking orchestral passages.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings:Christian Tetzlaff with Michael Gielen and the London Philharmonic, with Bartók's original ending of the finale  (Virgin)  |  Zoltán Székely with Willem Mengelberg and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, the great recording of the 1939 premiere (Hungaroton)

Reading: Bartók, by Paul Griffiths, in the Master Musicians series (Schirmer)  |  Bartók Remembered, edited by Malcolm Gillies (Norton)

(May 2014)