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BÉLA BARTÓK (1881–1945)

Rhapsody No. 1, Sz 86 for cello and piano

May 21, 2023: Zlatomir Fung, cello; Albert Cano Smit, piano

Bartók first let on that he had written his Rhapsody No. 1—initially for violin and piano—when he wrote to his friend, violinist Joseph Szigeti in the autumn of 1928: “I simply have to talk to you. . . . I have written a minor (12-minute) composition for you (based on folk dances); and I want to talk to you about one or two points.” The same year Bartók wrote his Second Rhapsody for violin, which as it turns out was composed almost simultaneously with No. 1. The Second he offered to Zoltán Székely, a gifted young violinist who became the first violinist of the Hungarian Quartet.

In his two Rhapsodies Bartók used many of the authentic folk tunes he had spent years collecting. In a long letter in 1931 to Romanian diplomat and music historian Octavian Beu, who was preparing a radio program about the composer, Bartók wrote: “The two Rhapsodies contain folk melodies from various sources. I intentionally did not indicate any source here, so I restrict myself to saying to you that No. 1 uses Romanian and Hungarian melodies, No. 2 Romanian, Hungarian, and Ruthenian.” Enterprising scholars have identified some of the melodies he used from his great collection entitled Romanian Folk Songs.

Like his predecessor and compatriot Liszt, Bartók associated the rhapsody with typical folk improvisations consisting of two sections, lassú (slow) and friss (brisk or lively), and adapted the freely ornamented style, accompanimental figurations, and instrumental colors. Both first movements feature a characteristic short-long Hungarian rhythm—similar to the “Scotch snap” but probably unrelated. In the First Rhapsody Bartók went so far as to include the cimbalom (a Gypsy hammer-dulcimer-like instrument) in his orchestration, which he imitates in the original piano accompaniment.

Bartók once admitted to his mother that there was something to be said for music that was pleasing and would make money by being played “a great many times, on the radio, etc.” To this end he made his Rhapsodies playable in as many ways as possible. Although both were initially written for violin with piano accompaniment, he transcribed them almost immediately for violin and orchestra. He also transcribed No. 1 for cello and piano—the version played here—which Pablo Casals played all over the world. Additionally, Bartók stated that each section (lassú or friss) of either Rhapsody could be performed separately. Curiously, not Szigeti but Székely premiered the First Rhapsody with the composer at the piano on March 4, 1929, in London. Szigeti, did, however, premiere the orchestral version in Königsberg on November 1, 1929, Hermann Scherchen conducting.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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