Béla Bartók


Sz. 113, BB118

About this work

This 1939 work marks the end of Bartok's European career. It was composed on commission from Paul Sacher, the pioneering conductor who commissioned so much fine music for his string orchestra in Basle, Switzerland. Bartok was then already planning to move to the United States to escape both the gathering war clouds of Europe and the Nazi sympathizing regime of his native Hungary. He had already sent his manuscripts and papers to London, but remained at home because of the terminal illness of his mother. While taking a break from all this he visited Sacher in Switzerland and while there composed this substantial (nearly 25 minute) work in 15 days. His mother died in December; Bartok finished up his personal affairs in Europe, giving his farewell Budapest appearance in October 1940. Meanwhile, the Divertimento had been successfully premiered in June in Basle.

Audiences were struck with a new clarity and classical approach in Bartok's music, as well as by his returning to a much clearer tonal feeling. This consolidated a trend which actually began a few years earlier. Longer, more attractive melodies (almost always in folk-character) reappear after a decade and a half in which Bartok's music was famous for its harsh sounds, uncompromisingly dissonant harmonies, and tight, motive-driven formal procedures. In this period it is easy to find (and hear) distinct tonality. The work's three movements, for instance, are in F Major, a modal scale based on D, and again in F. Bartok's use of solo strings against the large string group (particularly in the first movement) recalls the concerto grosso form.

The opening movement is a suave and gracefully dance-like "Allegro non troppo," full of attractive melodies, but also making highly intellectual use of canons, inversions, and other such devices. The Second movement is a remarkable example of Bartok's "Night Music, " including a frightening central section which seems to suggest some terror of the night. The third movement is even more playful than the first, a bit earthier, and somewhat faster. It even spoofs Bartok's tendency to drop into canons and fugues: what appears to be a full-fledged fugato section dissolves soon after it starts, the music laughs at itself, and comes to a whirling conclusion.