Bartók’s violin compositions from various perspectives

16. September 2017

Synopsis of the two-day Symposium ’Bartók and the Violin’ held within the framework of the Bartók World Competition & Festival at the Institute for Musicology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

The President of the Liszt Academy, Dr Andrea Vigh opened the Symposium ’Bartók and the Violin’ with the following words: „Béla Bartók may not have been Hans Kössler, his composition professor’s happiest student and perhaps he wasn’t the happiest of piano teachers later either– since education was more of a source of pressure for him, unlike the research of folk music, which was much closer to his heart. Yet, it was the Liszt Academy, where Bartók gave his most memorable recitals, where he made the few friends he had – first and foremost Zoltán Kodály, and this was the place where he met the musicians who breathed life into his works, the most significant of whom were violinists.” Dr Vigh added that one of Bartók’s greatest merits was his tireless passion for research, with which he would explore new harmonies folk music in and introduced completely new principles into the teaching methodology of folk music and found new harmonies and melodies in the compositions. As she pointed out: „With all this, he becomes not only a role model for us as a musician but also but as an ethical human being.” 

„The establishment of the Institute for Musicology in Budapest is also connected to his person, as his son Béla Bartók Jr. deposited the part of his inheritance that consisted of scores and other documents written by his ingenious father at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The Institute was founded for the preservation, research and processing of this legacy, but then its research activity was extended to other musicological fields particularly focussing on Hungarian music history.” –  was recounted by Pál Richter, the Director of the Institute for Musicology, who especially thanked László Vikárius, Head of the Budapest Bartók Archives for organising this event.

In his introductory address, László Vikárius pointed out that Bartók was primarily a pianist who and felt close to chamber music, so his relationship with the violin was influenced mainly by the extraordinary collaborators who then also inspired him to compose his violin sonatas. Dr Vikárius, the internationally recognised Bartók-expert mentioned the objects of Bartók’s youthful admiration: Adila and Jelly Arányi as well as Stefi Geyer, and he mentioned other violinist-connections too: Zoltán Székely, Imre Waldbauer, Emil Telmányi, József Szigeti, Ede Zathureczky, Endre Gertler or Yehudi Menuhin.

 


László Vikárius and David Cooper. Photo: Liszt Academy / László Mudra

 

The circumstances of the birth and first performance of the Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 – which was premiered in London – was explored by one of the key speakers of the Symposium, Prof David Cooper from the University of Leeds, who had published a comprehensive monograph on Bartók in 2015. He gave a detailed account of Bartók’s years of 1920-21 based on his correspondence, personal notes and his own research. The audience heard of auction rarities such as documents, letters, pictures – for example a photograph taken of the British music reviewer, Cecil Grey, who once wrote so enthusiastically of Bartók’s compositions.

The opening presentation in the afternoon was given by Elliott Antokoletz, Professor in Musicology at the University of a Texas, who fascinated his listeners with a profound analysis of Bartók’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2.

 


Photo: ZTI / Barnabás Manó Kukár

 

The Head of the Budapest Bartók Archives of the Institute for Musicology, László Vikárius introduced a former student of the Liszt Academy and the first presenter of the second day of the Symposium, Péter Laki with the following terms: „A family member in Bartók studies and the editor of the volume Bartók and his World”. This musicologist now living in the United States compared Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with and placed it into the context of the range of violin compositions that were written in the 1930s. The title of his presentation was Decade of violin concertos: New music and the performer in the 1930s. Comparing the initial motifs, he was exploring Berg, Schönberg, Prokofiev, Szymanowski, Walton and Bloch’s contemporary pieces in reflection to Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Péter Laki also shared his thoughts with zeneakademia.hu: „I have attempted to demonstrate how intense this decade was from the perspective of violin concertos. In its own way, each one of these works is an outstanding piece, which, however, does not question Bartók’s merits, in other words, it does not deduct from his violin concerto’s value that it is part of a well-perceivable trend. There are numerous excellent compositions from this period that did not receive the same attention as that of Bartók’s, who explicitly asked the Universal Music Publishing Group for the full orchestral scores of Szymanowski and Berg’s pieces.  Bartók knew and much respected these composers and wanted to see what they had written. He did not want to copy them, but he was well aware of the fact that in this decade there was  a general trend going on. He himself joined it too, but in his completely unique way. No doubt, he had made very different experiences: besides Hungarian folk music and studying the Hungarian folklore, he was also a student of the German School. As a virtual great-grandson of Beethoven’s, he had quite different inner motives than Stravinsky or Walton. For us, of course, Bartók’s relationship with the violin is still crucial. From the series of presentations delivered at the Symposium it became clear that Bartók would often collaborate with violinists, many of whom were his friends, and the violin was the only instrument he studied in great detail apart from the piano. Besides the piano, the violin is the instrument that is by far most represented in his oeuvre.”

The composer and the performer inspire one another, and in general it can be established that it greatly impacts the actual concert – as the Széchényi-award winning music historian and Ordinary member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Professor László Somfai put it in his presentation on Bartók’s Sonatas for Violin and Piano No. 1 and 2: The composition process. He mentioned that the world-renowned violinist József Szigeti refused to interpret Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 because he felt offended that Bartók hadn’t dedicated it to him, though they had collaborated on several occasions previously. Prof Somfai added that Bartók had taken to the stage with about thirty different violinists. „Half of these were Hungarian musicians, practically all of whom were tutored in the globally acclaimed Hubay School. The temperament and sensual interpretative style of Jelly Arányi, who had moved to London by the early 1920s – also deeply influenced the scores of the Sonatas for Violin and Piano dedicated to her.” Prof Somfai drew the attention of his audience to the fact that Yehudi Menuhin was the only one of the contemporary celebrated violinists who enjoyed a really deep relationship with Bartók, in the latter’s American years.  He continued with the following words: „Bartók was much impressed by Menuhin’s excellent, authentic classical way of interpretation, no wonder that following their joint concert, Menuhin asked him to compose a sonata for solo violin for him, and Bartók, who had just regained his energy from the Violin Concerto, was open to the request.”

 


Pál Richter. Photo: ZTI / Barnabás Manó Kukár

 

Beside the internationally recognised researchers - such as David Cooper, Elliott Antokoletz, Laki Péter and Somfai László – also young musicologists specialising in Bartók’s oeuvre got a role to play. As the Head of the Budapest Bartók Archives, Dr László Vikárius summed it up: „the presenters of the Symposium approached Bartók’s violin composition in various ways.” He stressed that each one of the young presenters had delivered an excellent, carefully prepared lecture. The Head of the Folk Music Department of the Liszt Academy and Director, of the Institute for Musicology Prof Pál Richter expressed his hope that through the young musicologists involved in the Symposium, the younger generations internationally could also be drawn to Bartók and his oeuvre.