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Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Béla Bartók

Born March 25, 1881, Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary.
Died September 26, 1945, New York City.

Violin Concerto No. 2

This used to be known as the Bartók violin concerto. In August 1936, when Zoltán Székely asked Bartók to compose a violin concerto for him, he had no idea that Bartók had already written one nearly thirty years before. When Bartók died in 1945, seven years after Székely gave the premiere of this concerto, the earlier score was still unknown, and so the later work took its place in the final tally of Bartók's output as his only violin concerto. But in 1956, the manuscript of Bartók's early violin concerto, written for his first great love, violinist Stefi Geyer, surfaced, shedding new light on Bartók's personal life and revising the catalog of his works in the process.

Three decades—and a lifetime of writing music and working with musicians—separate Bartók's two violin concertos. In 1907, when Bartók composed the first one, he was twenty-six and full of promise; he hadn't yet written any of the music for which he is famous today. In 1937, when he began his second, he was at the peak of his considerable powers. He had composed two important piano concertos; brilliant works for the stage, including the opera Bluebeard's Castle and the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin; and a series of string quartets that redefined the form. And when Székely proposed the idea of a new concerto, Bartók was putting the finishing touches on another pioneering score, the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta.

The musical climate had changed radically in those thirty years as well. Bartók's first violin concerto predates Schoenberg's first fully atonal music and Stravinsky's breakthrough with The Rite of Spring. By the mid-1930s, Schoenberg was single-mindedly devoted to his newly created twelve-tone system, and Stravinsky was enjoying the stylistic games of his neoclassical phase—he began his Beethovenian Symphony in C, in honor of the Chicago Symphony's fiftieth anniversary, while Bartók was writing his new violin concerto. (And in the meantime, the entire career of Alban Berg, who gave the twentieth-century a handful of its greatest masterworks, had come and gone.)

Less than a month after Székely first suggested the idea of a violin concerto, Bartók asked his publisher to send him some recent examples—he wanted to see firsthand how the landscape had changed since his earlier work, and, in a sense, judge what was still left to be said in the form before he committed to the project. (Universal Editions mailed him violin concertos by Berg, Weill, and Szymanowski.) It was another year before he started work on the piece, scribbling two themes on the back of a page of his nearly finished Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion sometime in August 1937. When Székely visited him at the end of September, Bartók had already written out the first two pages of the violin part, and the two played through them together—Székely discovering his new concerto on the spot; Bartók suggesting the orchestral music at the piano. The concerto wasn't finished for another year, and in March 1939, Székely and Bartók got together again, this time in Paris, for several days of rehearsing—and in the process—revising the score. (This is when Bartók added the two quick upbeat notes to the broad, singing main theme.)

Székely and Bartók had known each other since the early twenties. They frequently played chamber music together, and in 1928 Bartók dedicated his Second Violin Rhapsody to his friend. In 1935 Székely founded the Hungarian String Quartet, which performed Bartók's quartets with rare understanding and passion. Although Bartók didn't play the violin himself (he was a formidable pianist), he wrote magnificent, challenging, yet idiomatic music for the instrument. In his string quartet cycle, he showed that the violin was a perfect vehicle for his great flights of invention. With the new violin concerto, he gave the instrument one of its greatest and most demanding solo roles.

Bartók's original plan was to write a big one-movement set of variations, but Székely wanted a bona fide three-movement concerto, like the great classics. Each got his wish—Székely his three movements, Bartók his variations, as the second of the three. (In addition, the third movement is essentially a variation on the material of the first.) The concerto is one of the first works to demonstrate the clarity and directness of Bartók's late style, starting with the opening—a strong, folklike melody over plain, shifting chords. The first movement is a grand rhapsody. With its expansive, evolving theme and elastic tempo—Bartók adjusts the speed every few measures—it sounds almost improvisatory. Of course, it is all meticulously worked out, including the written-down cadenza which begins, just before the orchestra drops out, with the soloist playing pitch-bending quarter tones.

In the central Andante tranquillo, Bartók writes the most formal set of variations of his career. The theme is simplicity itself—a haunted tune accompanied by low strings, harp, and timpani. In the six variations that follow, the theme is elaborated, growing not just more florid but also more aggressive and discordant, and then stripped to its essence, before taking off again into new flights of fancy.

The finale, which begins like a bold dance, takes many of its ideas from the first movement, but continuously reinvents them. Originally Bartók had the solo part drop out twenty-six measures before the end of the piece, but Székely wanted it to finish “like a concerto, not like a symphony,” and so Bartók rewrote the conclusion so that everyone plays together to the last measure.

Phillip Huscher is the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Program notes copyright © 2006 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. All Rights Reserved. Program notes may not be printed in their entirety without the written consent of Chicago Symphony Orchestra; excerpts may be quoted if due acknowledgment is given to the author and to Chicago Symphony Orchestra. For reprint permission, contact Denise Wagner, Program Editor, by mail at: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 220 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60604, or by e-mail.

These notes appear in galley files and may contain typographical or other errors. Programs and artists subject to change without notice.

Violin Concerto No. 2

More information . . .
Composition History

Bartók began this concerto in August 1937 and completed it on December 31, 1938. The first performance was given on March 23, 1939, by Zoltán Székely, with Willem Mengelberg conducting the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. The orchestra consists of two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and english horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, side drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, celesta, harp, and strings. Performance time is approximately forty-one minutes.

Performance History

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's first subscription concert performances of Bartók's Second Violin Concerto were given at Orchestra Hall on April 5 and 6, 1945, with John Weicher as soloist and Désiré Defauw conducting. Our most recent subscription concert performances were given on October 7, 8, and 9, 2004, with Christian Tetzlaff as soloist and Paavo Järvi conducting. The Orchestra first performed this concerto at the Ravinia Festival on July 14, 1968, with Masuko Ushioda as soloist and André Vandernoot conducting, and most recently on July 5, 1986, with Christian Altenburger as soloist and James Levine conducting.

For the record
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra recorded Bartók's Second Violin Concerto in 1998 with Gil Shaham under Pierre Boulez for Deutsche Grammophon. A 1957 performance with Yehudi Menuhin, conducted by Fritz Reiner, is included in From the Archives, vol. 11: The Reiner Era II.

Bartók and the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Over the years, the Chicago Symphony has benefited from close ties to Bartók, who came here himself to play his Second Piano Concerto in 1941. Fritz Reiner, CSO music director from 1953 to 1962, was a student of Bartók and an early champion of his music. Reiner conducted the American premiere of the First Piano Concerto with the composer at the keyboard, in New York City, during Bartók's first U.S. tour in 1928. He also led Bartók's final public performance, in the Concerto for Two Pianos, in 1943, with Bartók's wife Ditta at the second piano. Although Bartók never learned of it, it was Reiner, along with violinist Joseph Szigeti, who suggested that Koussevitzky commission the Concerto for Orchestra for the Boston Symphony. Sir Georg Solti, CSO music director from 1969 to 1991, also studied with Bartók, his countryman, at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest in the late 1920s. Solti always remembered turning pages—on a moment's notice—at the Budapest premiere of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, with Bartók at the piano, in 1938.

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