Two Rhapsodies for Violin and Orchestra
Timing: Number 1 - 10:00; Number 2 – 12:00
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle), harp, cimbalom, piano (= celesta), strings, and solo violin.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: (No. 1) March 3, 1966, with soloist Isaac Stern, Zubin Mehta conducting; (No. 2) June 3, 1984, with soloist Alexander Treger, Pierre Boulez conducting (Ojai Festival).
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) wrote his two rhapsodies for violin and piano in 1928, a year he spent at home in Budapest after touring the world for nearly a year giving piano recitals. His travels took him to such distant and exotic locales as Los Angeles, where, his letters disclose, he marvelled at discovering avocados.
But Bartók’s travels did not rouse the cosmopolitan in him much. The two Rhapsodies for violin are Hungarian to the core, without a trace of guacamole. Like much of Bartók’s music, they are based on the folk music that he had spent much of his time travelling through Hungary collecting with note pad and tape recorder. The Rhapsodies are full of the sounds of folk fiddling: improvisatory-sounding variations in the melodies and multiple stops of the sort that would be natural for a player creating his own harmonies as he goes along. They both consist of a lassú and a friss, the two movements of the Hungarian czárdas, where they traditionally would be more or less synonymous with fast movement and slow movement. Lizst’s Hungarian Rhapsodies contain the most famous examples.
Bartók initially composed both of his Rhapsodies for violin and piano, orchestrated them a year or two later (there is also a cello/piano version of the first Rhapsody), then revised them both more than once; he did the last revision of the second one in America in 1944, a year before he died.
The first Rhapsody is the more structured and genteel of the two. The lassú is divided into two outer sections, featuring a ponderous, throaty tune, and a more subdued middle section. The friss is based on a folk tune with an uncanny resemblance to the American Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” which is shunted aside for a procession of other folk tunes in a series of episodes in steadily accelerating tempo. The second Rhapsody is cruder and more astringent in character, with a more improvised feel.
Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated programs for the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra and the Coleman Chamber Concerts.