Violin Concerto No. 2
March 25, 1881, Sânnicolau Mare, Romania – September 26, 1945, New York City, New York
Thirty years after his First Violin Concerto, Bela Bartók accepted a commission from the Hungarian violinist Zoltan Szekely to write a Second Violin Concerto, which was completed on December 31, 1938. However, when Szekely received the first version, he decided that the concerto was not “showy enough” and refused to play it. Bartók respected that criticism and kindly re-wrote the ending, including more virtuosic displays. The second version was acceptable to Szekely because it seemed to bristle with virtuosic demands and dazzling technical feats. This revised concerto premiered in Amsterdam in 1939, with Szekely as soloist. Bartók was not there, however, having decided to come to the United States to begin a new life for himself and his wife. He did not hear a performance of the concerto until 1944.
Part of the great audience appeal of this work is the inclusion of gypsy inflections. The folk elements embedded within the music create a charm and exotic touch. Including such gypsy elements was a natural course for Bartók. Much of his life had been spent in the study of his native Hungarian music, categorizing and retrieving vast amounts of music which would have been lost without his strong dedication to that research. Bartók was convinced that this music would serve as “the foundation for a renaissance of Hungarian art music.” And he frequently incorporated these sources and musical features in his own compositions. “It is necessary for the composer to command this language so completely that it becomes the natural expression of his own musical ideas,” Bartók asserted. The violin was a favorite instrument of Hungarian gypsies, and this violin concerto was a natural receptacle for the gypsy coloration blending with European traditions.
Exploring the piece
The Second Violin Concerto is written in three movements. The first movement opens with softly plucked triads (chords) from the harp and pizzicato notes from the celli. After a few bars the soloist enters with the broadly arching first theme built from those pizzicato notes. The theme continues its wide scope and enters into a canonic (imitative) dialogue in the strings and the winds. The second theme is particularly notable for its twelve-tone structure, a structure that uses all twelve tones of the scale before repeating any of them. This process further loosened the tonal centers and the quarter-tone intervals played by the soloist toward the conclusion of the movement. Some have suggested that this inclusion was a parody of the avant-garde. A difficult cadenza (virtuosic solo section) filled with double stops (bowing two strings at once), glissandi, and snapping orchestral strings brings the movement to a close.
The second movement, marked andante tranquillo, is a set of six variations on a modal (old scale) theme. Robert Layton commented that, “This movement is one of Bartók’s most allusive and subtle compositions in that, although the formal outline of theme and variations is unambiguous, its details are delightfully delicate and mercurial.” The soloist presents the theme over delicate accompaniment from the harp, low strings, and kettledrums. Each succeeding variation is remarkably different from its predecessor, offering wide opportunities for display of technique and mood. After the variations finish their parade, the soloist repeats the tune in its original form.
The last movement, a rondo, uses material from the first movement, recast into a spirited and dramatic setting. The kinship between the two movements is very close, some critics calling it a re-interpretation of the first. Episodes of violinist prowess separate the central rondo theme and the music concludes with a brilliant and rapid triplet figurations.
Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto is a masterpiece in the genre, ranking with the finest violin concerti of our century. Its notable idiomatic writing, engaging tunes, and flashing colors—as well as its well-crafted logic—will ensure it a distinguished place long into the future.
Beethoven’s monumental Violin Concerto, composed in 1806, was slow to gain traction, critical acclaim, and enthusiasm. At that time, the composer was experimenting with a new personal voice, new ideas, and Opus 61 now took its place amid these innovative and sometimes perplexing works. It eschewed “knock-out” extravagance even though Maynard Solomon characterized this middle period of Beethoven’s compositions as “post Heiligenstadt style, in which his mastery of classical procedures merged with a new vision of art as heroic and individualistic achievement.” Beethoven had now completed his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the impetuous Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas, which opened new musical vistas and behaviors. Some of the concerto’s innovations were less dramatic but nonetheless significant. A three minute wait for the soloist entry, the strange “knocking rhythm” from the timpani; an unusual direct connectivity (attacca) between second and third movements, a shockingly brusque ending, and comparative “lack” of traditional concerto virtuosity .
But the new-style writing was suitable for the soloist, Franz Clement, noted for “graceful playing, a relatively small but expressive style, and unfailing purity in high positions and exposed entrances.” The dedication for Clement ominously read “Concerto for Clement, out of compassion.” Clement was familiar to Beethoven: he had met him in 1794, when the precocious violinist was only thirteen. At the time, he advised “Continue along the road on which you have already made such a fine and magnificent journey. Nature and art have combined to make a great artist of you.”
On December 23, 1806, the concerto barely survived an inauspicious premier. Beethoven had delivered a confusing hand written score only two days before to the musicians; the twenty-six year old Clement was sight reading most of the time; a cadenza was missing and Clement probably improvised one on the spot. (Most audiences today are used to the Kreisler cadenza.) Between the first and second movements, Clement threw in a couple compositions of his own. One was played with the violin upside down on one string for a bit of saucy, circus style showmanship which regaled the audience. The concerto itself was marginalized at best. A somewhat happier outcome came a year later with another performance, but acceptance was fleeting.
After the December concert, Clement suggested that the concerto be re-written for piano. Beethoven did turn out a piano version in 1808 (known as 61a) which was favored by the pianist Muzio Clementi. However except for Clementi’s interest, it was, more or less totally ignored. Reviews of the concerto’s premier were generally bad. Johann Nepomuk Moser commented in the Theaterzeitung “The concerto’s many beauties must be conceded but…the endless repetitions of certain common place passages may easily become tedious…it is to be feared that if Beethoven continues upon this path he and the public will fare badly.” In Harmonicon, William Ayrton wrote “Beethoven has put forth no strength in his Violin Concerto. It is merely a fiddling affair and might have been written by any third or fourth rate composer. “Enduring fame and acceptance would not come until 1844 when the precocious thirteen year old Joseph Joachim performed the concerto at a concert for the Philharmonic society of London, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn. Robert Schumann wrote that it was Joachim’s “skillful hand that led us through the heights and depths of that marvelous structure which the majority explore in vain. The event was transformational, and Opus 61 had a new and prosperous life.
Opus 61 reveals itself gradually. Regarding the long introduction Beethoven once stated to the Schuppanzigh Quartet “Do you think I care about your wretched fiddle when the spirit takes hold of me?”The first movement, allegro ma non troppo, opens with five pulsing strokes from the timpani ( a gesture which will inhabit the entire work, hence the sobriquet kettledrum concerto) with the fifth combined with the first beat of the first theme. This is followed by a calm, gently sculpted melody sung by oboes, clarinets and bassoons. Violins echo the timpani strokes before winds and horn present a second theme in another well-coifed statement. After the expansive introduction the soloist enters with a daring passage of high ascending octaves (no room for an error in intonation) playing in quasi- improvisatory fashion before launching his first theme. A second theme follows, and the two forces work out the ideas in tight collaboration during the huge development, concluding with a quiet section sung by the soloist. The recapitulation is announced by reference to the opening timpani strokes now displayed by full orchestra. Themes from the exposition reemerge with decorative commentary. Before the Kreisler cadenza most soloists made up their own cadenza at this point.; there are more than seventeen cadenzas provided by composers and violinists. Possibly the most unusual and edgy cadenza comes from the Russian modernist composer Alfred Schnittke ( 1934-1998) commissioned by violinist Gidon Kremer. It is thoroughly impregnated by the four-note pattern heard at the beginning: and characterizations include comments such as “ wacky” “contains harmonic oddities.” You can listen for yourself on Youtube. A quote of the second theme concludes the movement as a coda.
Sir Donald Tovey wrote “this movement I one of the cases of sublime inaction achieved by Beethoven and by no one else. “The hymn-like Larghetto offers a stately theme of sixteen measures presented first by muted strings before repetition from clarinet and bassoon. As it moves to a secondary position the violinist embroiders extensive ornaments in graceful arabesques: again in the dangerous high register zone. Basically the form is a theme and variations. The violin spins a secondary theme before the first idea re- emerges in pizzicato articulation. A cadenza passage brings the movement to a close before leading directly into the third movement.
The third movement rondo-allegro flows seamlessly with the soloist presenting a rocking theme on the low g string. Voicing is warm and folk-like, and the orchestra quickly joins in the informal merrymaking. the main idea is repeated three times. Contrasting sections offer colorful changes of mood and key in securely crafted , bold writing. There is ample opportunity for virtuosic fun (including an inserted cadenza), and horns lend pastoral touches throughout. The concerto closes with a flashing coda sealed with a pair of hammered orchestral chords.
Concerto in D Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 47
December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland – September 20, 1957,Järvenpää, Finland
When he was ten years old, Sibelius began to study the violin, practicing from “morning to night” and desiring to “be a celebrated violinist at any price.” Fifteen years later he commented, “I came to the very painful awakening when I had to admit that I had begun my training for the career of an eminent performer too late!” Michael Steinberg said that Sibelius wrote this “for a kind of ghostly self.”
In 1903, he began to work on his only Violin Concerto. Though plagued by a severe ear infection and throat complications, he worked assiduously, occasionally taking a bit of time off for some fun in certain Helsinki bars. Sometimes he was gone a couple of days on his “fun times.” When the finale of the concerto needed parts to be orchestrated, Mrs. Sibelius had to go with conductor Robert Kajanus to find him. Sibelius was on one of his little drinking interludes. He was found in time and all was well. The concerto premiered on February 8, 1904, to a modest reception. The soloist was Victor Nováček, a fine violin teacher, but not a performer. Undeterred, Sibelius reworked Opus 47 and a new premiere in Berlin took place on October 19, 1905, with Richard Strauss conducting and Karl Halir as soloist, which produced a far better result.
His concerto is extremely difficult, demanding multiple double stops (playing two strings at one time), placement of activity and themes in the high area of the instrument (difficult intonation), fast tempi, and incredible bowing requirements to negotiate wide leaps and sustaining of long melodies. These difficulties kept the concerto from wide circulation until after World War II. Perhaps violinists had improved? Sibelius was well acquainted with violin technique and not afraid to demand the ultimate.
The first movement demonstrates his demand for bow control in the display of the opening idea (marked allegro moderato). The rhapsodic theme measures thirty measures and is sung by the soloist over an undercurrent of muted, divided strings. Entering on an off beat, and “delicately dissonant,” the first note grabs attention. “I have had a marvelous opening idea,” the composer wrote to his wife. Winds, in low register, share commentary on the idea. A second soulful theme is delivered by celli and bassoons. The development shortens and compresses the ideas, offering sharp contrast to the extended, long-winded lines of the soloist. This interior section includes a formidable cadenza (sometimes therefore called development/cadenza section). This section leads directly to the recapitulation with the themes considerably altered from their first visit. A second cadenza occurs followed by a flashing coda featuring the soloist soaring above full orchestra, closing the movement.
A tender, romantic tune sung by paired clarinets and oboes in thirds opens the second movement. The idea is quickly overtaken by the soloist presenting a long lyrical theme, marked sonoro ed espressivo. Horns and bassoons provide a secure foundation before other instruments add subsidiary comments. The initial meditative, Nordic atmosphere, is interrupted by wind, strings, and timpani in jolly spirits, and the soloist quickly joins the fun. During the exuberance, one of the concerto’s most incredible demands—playing a fiercely difficult passage including both theme and accompaniment—swings into action, careening to a flashing climax. The orchestra restates the opening theme, now decorated by limpid violinistic figuration, leading to a quiet close and a few nostalgic phrases.
Sibelius characterized the finale as a “danse macabre.” Sir Donald Tovey called it a “polonaise for bears.” Heavy stamping, intense rhythms, and technical bravura combine in a showstopper. Immediately, the soloist reveals a tense, jagged theme with kettledrums and strings thumping a strong undercurrent. As complexity grows, the violinist is unrelentingly taken through a massive display and demand of superlative technique with fiery arpeggios, harmonics (specially formed notes with partially depressed strings) and soaring melodies. A brief gasp of air is allowed in one slower melody, but the urgency resumes to a sudden explosive close. With its extreme virtuosic demands, this concerto can be considered a real throwback to the familiar romantic tradition of high wire performance danger and daring as the sine qua non of the concerto concept.