Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 Premiered in 1939
The world premiere was given by Hungarian virtuoso Zoltán Székely with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Born in 1881, Hungarian composer Béla Bartók made his public debut at age 11 and attended Budapest’s Royal Academy of Music, studying composition and piano with László Erkel, János Koessler, and István Thoman. His contemporaries included fellow composer, Zoltán Kodály.
Among Bartók’s many works is his Violin Concerto No. 2, written between 1937 and 1938 at the long-standing request of Zoltán Székely — his frequent recital partner since 1921 and the first violinist of the Hungarian String Quartet. It was also during this time that Bartók was about to emigrate to the U.S., lamenting the political unrest in Hungary at the onset of WWII.
A three-movement work, the concerto is based on the Hungarian Verbunkos dance style and is a much-respected standard in today’s concert and competition repertoire. According to columnist Herbert Glass, the concerto’s use of Schoenbergian twelve-tone influences reflected Bartók’s insistence that all 12 tones could be used in a work, yet still remain tonal.
The world premiere of the work was given by Székely with Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra and Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg. The groundbreaking performance was recorded as part of an album now available on the Hungaroton label.
Following the premiere, Székely was given exclusive rights to perform the Concerto for three years; however, this was shortened to 13 months due to the Nazi invasion of Holland. In 1943, the performances of the work in Cleveland and New York — where Bartók stayed until his final years — were given by violinist Tossy Spivakovsky.
As stated by Aaron Grad, Bartók was a dedicated ethnomusicologist, who amassed over 14,000 Hungarian folksongs, and hundreds of Slovak, Romanian, Turkish, Bulgarian, and other music as influences for his own work, including his Second Violin Concerto.
Involving a series of variations that also reflect those in adjacent movements, the Concerto features Bartók’s favorite compositional device — the so-called “Bartók pizz” where the pizzicato is played in such a way that the string bounces off the fingerboard, producing a percussive effect.
An invaluable work of the 20th century, Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 was one of his last masterpieces before leaving Hungary. His first violin concerto was written in 1908 for violinist Stefi Geyer and was published posthumously in 1956.
The piece played by VC Artist Augustin Hadelich can be viewed below.
BÉLA BARTÓK | VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 2 | AUGUSTIN HADELICH | DANISH NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA | VASILY PETRENKO | 2017