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Composed: 1937/1938
Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, gong, 2 snare drums, triangle), harp, celesta, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 11, 1945, with soloist Yehudi Menuhin, Antal Dorati conducting

In 1938, Bartók had every reason to be pessimistic about his and Europe’s future. He expressed his outrage in a letter to a friend in Switzerland: “What is most appalling is the imminent danger that Hungary too will surrender to this system of robbers and murderers... Hungary, where unfortunately the ‘educated’ Christian people are almost exclusively devoted to the Nazi system. I am really ashamed that I come from this class.” He then discusses the possibility of emigrating. Within a year he would be gone, eventually to end his days in the United States.

There were two bright spots in Bartók’s professional life during those last years in Hungary: the support of the Swiss Maecenas and conductor Paul Sacher, who commissioned three large-scale works from him, and the fulfillment of a long-standing request for a violin concerto from Zoltán Székely, his frequent recital partner since 1921.

On the eve of starting the Concerto, Bartók began to have doubts, which he expressed in letters to Székely, who had emigrated to Holland, and whose salient points the violinist relates: “Would I have time to play the new concerto during the period [three years] of my exclusive performing rights? If you join the quartet [the New Hungarian Quartet, the ‘New’ was later dropped, of which Székely became first violinist] how will you be able to play solos?’... I wrote to Bartók to assure him that once I had the concerto I would set aside time every season to give performances of it... He wrote again [in May]: ‘If that is the case, there is really nothing in the way. Only you didn’t mention how you will be able to fit together quartet and solo playing...’” Not an easy man, Béla Bartók.

The first performance of what has come to be regarded as one of the great 20th-century violin concertos, indeed in the history of the genre, was given on April 24, 1939, by Székely and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Willem Mengelberg. A recording of the event has long been available on the Hungaroton label.

The point that Bartók used folk elements without employing actual folk tunes is magnificently illustrated by the violin’s long, rhapsodic opening theme, which with its insistence on the intervals of fourths, fifths, and seconds could come from nowhere but Hungary. Bartók sets the stage for that theme with a sustained horn note, harp strummings, and pizzicato low strings: mysterious, brooding, and lush. Purest Bartók.

Regarding the second, contrasting theme, note the following recollection by the late Yehudi Menuhin, one of the Concerto’s foremost interpreters, of an exchange with the composer in Bartók’s New York apartment in 1943: “[Bartók] was trying to find out how well I had grasped [the Concerto], asking particularly my opinion of a passage in the first movement. ‘It’s rather chromatic,’ I offered. ‘Yes, it’s chromatic,’ he said, but then nudging me toward the point he was making: ‘You see that it comes very often?’ Which it does, some 32 times, never exactly the same. ‘Well, I wanted to show Schoenberg that one can use all 12 tones and still remain tonal.’ Here was one of Bartók’s barbs: ‘…and any one of those repeated sequences would supply a dodecaphonist with material for a whole opera…’ ”

The midpoint of the movement presents one of the most magical of the composer’s inspirations in this Concerto, with an inversion of the principal theme, the violin’s exquisite cantilena accompanied by harp, celesta, and muted violins. In the recapitulation the entire string section engages in a favorite Bartók device, a pizzicato of such forcefulness that the strings cannonade off the fingerboard.

The magnificently atmospheric slow movement consists of a calm, almost childlike G-major theme, with six variations. In the first variation, the timpani is treated as a melodic instrument as it partners the solo violin. The second variation takes apart the opening theme, blending its components into an orchestra of woodwinds, harp, and celesta. The third, with its hammering double stops for the solo, is all rhythmic energy, while in the fourth variation the violin theme is transferred to the low strings, encircled by the solo violin’s trills and scales. Five is a fast scherzando affair, the solo joined by snare drum and celesta, with harp glissandos and a scurrying flute. The last variation begins with a lavishly embellished version of the theme before the solo line broadens out lyrically and the theme is stated by the violin, as at the beginning of the movement, but an octave higher. The movement draws to a misty, mysterious close, its mood of indeterminacy dispersed by the rude entry of the massed strings, ushering in the finale: not the expected rondo but, like the opening movement, a sonata-allegro. Its main melodic thread is a rhythmically altered version of the first movement’s principal theme.

— Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.