Violin Sonata No. 2, BB 85 (Sz. 76)

March 11, 2018: Benjamin Beilman, Violin; Orion Weiss, piano

Bartók wrote his two sonatas for violin and piano in 1921 and 1922 for violinist Jelly d’Arányi, with whom he played them in London, the first in 1922 and the second in 1923. The composer especially like performing the Second Sonata, not only with d’Arányi but with Imre Waldbauer, József Szigeti, and Zoltán Székely. Along with The Miraculous Mandarin and the First Piano Concerto, the violin sonatas are products of Bartók’s “expressionist” period, when he came closest to the ideals of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Lecturing in America in 1927–28 Bartók said: “There was a time when I thought I was approaching a species of twelve-tone music. Yet even in works of that period the absolute tonal foundation is unmistakable.”

The composer himself described the First Violin Sonata as “in C-sharp minor” and the Second as “in C major,” but the tonality is extremely clouded in both. In the Second Sonata a pivotal relationship proves to be that of a tritone from F-sharp to C. Further, in both he refrains from the traditional sharing or imitation of materials between the two instruments, which makes these two works unlike any other works in the genre. In the Second Sonata in particular Bartók also avoids the conventional form of a sonata, employing instead a condensed two-movement form related to the model of traditional Hungarian verbunkos (recruiting music) consisting of a slow section (lassù) and a fast section (friss).

The first movement adopts a free, declamatory style with elaborate ornamentation and frequent pushing and pulling of the tempo typical of the slow (lassù) section, albeit in a more dissonant style. Bartók hasn’t completely distanced himself from Classic forms here, drawing on a kind of sonatina structure—that is, exposition and recapitulation with no development—but his recapitulation varies the four sections of his exposition themes significantly and the overall effect sounds freely rhapsodic rather than betraying its careful organization. The opening theme, which Bartók recalls not only at the opening of the recapitulation but twice in the coda, also plays a unifying role in the second movement.

A technique that comes into play in the first movement, though less than in the first movement of the First Sonata, is the placing of successive melody notes in different registers (octave displacement), a common technique in twelve-tone composition. This greatly alters, for example, the sound of the return of the third section in the recapitulation. Bartók in his Hungarian Folk Music suggests a folk equivalent to this “high art” technique:

Hungarian peasants do not devote much care to selecting a suitable pitch, but they simplify difficulties in proportion as they occur: whenever a note is too high or two low for them, they transpose it by an octave, regardless of design and rhythmic conditions. This they will do ad libitum, perhaps several times in the course of one tune. Hence at times peculiar leaps of a seventh occur. . . . In the course of time this practice has become so usual that many peasants resort to changes of octaves without being driven by need.

The connected second movement exhibits a lively dance character, like the friss section of verbunkos style, and unfolds in a form somewhat like a rondo in which the “refrain” returns in varied guises. Bartók ingeniously links his two movements by recalling themes from the first movement in the intervening episodes and by having the violin return to the first movement’s opening theme at the climax near the end. The piece ends with an atmospheric fade to a somewhat surprising but radiant C major chord.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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