The Kennedy Center

Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Piano, Sz. 87

About the Work

Béla Bartók Composer: Béla Bartók
© Richard Rodda

Among Bartók's music most overtly redolent of folk influences are his two Rhapsodies for Violin , into which he incorporated melodies from Rumania, Hungary and (in No. 2) Ruthenia, the eastern Czech region bordering Ukraine. Each of these works consists of a pair of movements whose style and character derive from the Hungarian national dance, the Czardas , which alternates (at a sign from the dancer to the orchestra) a slow section ? Lassú ? and a fast one - Friss - Bartók settled on the generic title Rhapsody for these pieces, a term that Franz Liszt had originally borrowed from literature for his series of works spawned by the Czardas to describe their free structure and quick contrasts.

Bartók dedicated each of the Rhapsodies , composed quickly soon after he had returned from his first American tour early in 1928, to a noted violinist friend. The Rhapsody No. 1 was inscribed to the Hungarian virtuoso Joseph Szigeti, who had transcribed some of Bartók's pieces For Children for violin in 1926 so satisfactorily that the composer agreed to give a joint recital with him in Budapest the following year. Bartók and Szigeti remained steadfast musical allies - they performed together on numerous occasions (including a memorable recital at the Library of Congress in 1940, Bartók's first appearance after emigrating to this country, whose recording remains one of the most important documents of 20th-century music), and the violinist was instrumental in arranging both the 1938 commission from clarinetist Benny Goodman that resulted in Contrasts (also inspired by Hungarian folk idioms) and the 1943 commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation that allowed Bartók to compose the Concerto for Orchestra .

The scalar tune given above a drone-like accompaniment that serves as the main theme of the first movement ( Lassú ) of the Rhapsody No. 1 exhibits a certain Gypsy influence in its sharply dotted rhythms and exotic melodic leadings. Thematic contrast is provided by the mournful strain, marked by snapping short-long figurations, that comprises the central section. The scalar tune returns to round out the movement. The second movement ( Friss ) is a brilliant procession of vibrant dance melodies, often requiring considerable feats of virtuosity from the violinist. The Rhapsody ends with the return of the scalar melody that opened the work.

Bartók dedicated his Second Rhapsody to Zoltán Székely, a student of both Kodály and the celebrated Hungarian violinist Jenö Hubay, who concertized frequently with Bartók in the 1920s and 1930s, and whose Hungarian Quartet championed and recorded the composer's chamber works; the Violin Concerto No. 2 of 1938 was commissioned and premiered by and dedicated to Székely. Bartók had to take the fiddle out of the country to compose the Second Rhapsody, but if he had left any more of the country in the fiddle, the piece would have to be played only in the open air: open-interval harmonies suggest the drone of peasant bagpipes; dense encrustations of decorating notes call up images of a Tokay-fueled village virtuoso; strange gapped scales and fiery stomping rhythms and soulful melodies preserve ancient customs of song and dance that were vanishing even as this music was being written. With such earthy and evocative compositions, Bartók fixed in notes forever the soul of Eastern Europe's musical heritage.