The Kennedy Center

Divertimento for Strings

About the Work

Béla Bartók Composer: Béla Bartók
© Richard Freed

The Divertimento was composed between August 2 and 17, 1939, at Saanen, Switzerland, under a commission from Paul Sacher, who conducted the premiere in a concert of the Basel Chamber Orchestra on June 11 of the following year. Bruno Maderna conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this work, on September 9, 1972; Hugh Wolff conducted the most recent ones, on May 30 and 31, 1985.

The work is scored for full orchestral strings.

The remarkable Paul Sacher (1906-1999) was responsible for bringing into being roughly a hundred important works by many of the giants among twentieth-century composers. Bartók composed his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta for the tenth anniversary of Sacher's Basel Chamber Orchestra in 1936; the composer and his wife introduced his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion at Basel two years later, and in 1939 he composed the present work on another commission from Sacher.

Because Bartók always knew exactly what he intended to write before he put a note on paper, he worked swiftly and with great concentration. Even so complex and substantial a score as the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was completed just ten weeks after he accepted Sacher's commission, and the Divertimento was composed in barely more than two weeks in the comfortable accommodations Sacher provided at Saanen. This work thus became the last of Bartók's compositions to be introduced in Europe before the composer left for America the following year. Together with the last of his six string quartets (written at about the same time but introduced later, in New York), it brought to an end a remarkably rich period which also saw the creation of the Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano, and the Second Violin Concerto (both composed in 1938). Bartók composed nothing more until 1943, two years before his death, when he commenced his foreshortened "American period" with the glorious Concerto for Orchestra.

Apparently Bartók in 1939 was mindful of having fulfilled an earlier commission from Sacher with a demanding, intensely serious work, and decided to make this one quite different. The instrumentation, for strings alone, is much simpler, and the music itself is uncontrivedly genial and ingratiating, with more conspicuous allusion to the folk idiom that had become so much a part of the composer's personal vocabulary. It is likely, too, that in that tense summer of 1939 (the German invasion of Poland ignited World War II two weeks after the score of the Divertimento was completed) Bartók, who was already planning his departure from Europe, undertook such a work to lift his own spirits. In any event, the benevolent Sacher saw to it that he was cut off from tension as much as possible: he worked on this composition not in Budapest but in the tranquil setting of a fairy-tale Swiss town, and he did not look at a newspaper during that entire productive fortnight. Once the score was finished, he wrote to his elder son, "Luckily I can banish . . . anxiety-provoked thoughts. . . . While I am at work it doesn't disturb me."

The title of this work bespeaks its character: outgoing, hearty, extremely good-humored in its outer movements, and yet by no means frivolous in any section. The opening has a particularly earthy feeling, as of a foursquare peasant dance in which the melody simply grows out of the rhythm itself. Numerous dancelike tunes are heard against the backdrop of varied rhythms and harmonies; a three-note figure from the end of the first theme establishes itself as a sort of ritornello or "motto" that will be reappear later in the work. In the development various choirs are pitted against one another or alternate with the full ensemble as the mood passes from momentarily introspective to boldly declamatory, the latter predominating in the recapitulation, which winds down, however, to a tranquil ending.

The slow movement is somewhat more inward and profound that the two outer ones. It is an example of Bartók's characteristic "night music," though less exotic than many of its predecessors in this respect. Polyphonic writing is a feature of its first section, whose character is predominantly ruminative; the music then becomes more animated, with piercing little jabs and a pronouncedly Hungarian flavor. A climax is reached which might be described as "anguished," and then comforting gestures from various solo instruments and small groups alternate with the eruptive ones from the ensemble until at last the emotional storm passes and the movement ends calmly. It is not much of a stretch to suggest that the seeds of the central Elegia of the Concerto for Orchestra are to be found in this poignant piece.

In the Concerto Bartók follows the Elegia with a sassy little scherzo and an exuberant dancelike finale; here too he dispels the somber mood of the slow movement with an especially vivacious finale, one which in some respects is related to the corresponding sections of both the Concerto for Orchestra and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Here is an abundance of unabashed good humor, given emphasis by the cross-rhythms and the brilliance of the string scoring. What starts out as a "serious" fugue, breaks off to become an extended cadenza for solo violin. When the proceedings seem to have reached their peak, the music becomes hushed and a striking pizzicato passage leads mischievously into the still more driving conclusion.