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PROGRAM NOTES: In the Heart of Hungary

Grand Duo Concertant sur la romance de M. Lafont
“Le marin,” S.128

Born October 22, 1811, Raiding
Died July 31, 1886, Bayreuth
Approximate Duration: 15 minutes

We do not normally associate the name Franz Liszt with chamber music–the intimate and restrained nature of chamber music seems far removed from the extroverted virtuosity of much of of Liszt’s music. But he did write a small number of works for chamber ensembles. During the mid-1830s, when Liszt–then in his twenties–was based in Paris and making his career as a virtuoso pianist, he met the French violinist and composer Charles Philippe Lafont (1781-1839). Out of this friendship came a piece we know today as Liszt’s Grand Duo Concertante, though evidence suggests that it was composed as a collaboration between the two men. They probably performed the Grand Duo in Paris, but the music was still in manuscript when Lafont was killed in 1839 when his carriage overturned. Liszt retained his affection for this music, however, and he returned to it in 1849 and revised it. The Grand Duo was finally published in 1852, nearly two decades after it had been first composed.

The title Grand Duo Concertante suggests a virtuoso work, and this is indeed virtuoso music: it is beautifully written for both instruments, both instruments have cadenza-like passages along the way, and the idiomatic writing for violin suggests that Lafont had a great deal to do with creating that part. While the Grand Duo may be a virtuoso piece, it takes the form of a set of variations, and those variations are based on the song Le marin (“The Sailor”) by Lafont himself. A dramatic and substantial introduction leads to Lafont’s gentle melody, stated first by the violin and then taken up by the piano. Four variations follow, and these give both performers plenty of opportunity to shine. The Grand Duo is rounded off by a lengthy finale, and Lafont’s original melody makes a brilliant reappearance in the course of the rush to the close.

Duo for Violin and Cello, Opus 7

Born December 16, 1882 Kecskemét, Hungary
Died March 6, 1967, Budapest
Approximate Duration: 25 minutes

In the early years of the twentieth century, Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók set out to discover and explore the folk music of Eastern Europe. They traveled widely, writing down the songs they heard and–when possible– recording them on primitive recording devices. There exists a wonderful photograph of the ever-formal Bartók, in suit and tie, with peasants in a Transylvanian village, where he is directing a peasant woman to sing into the horn of an early recorder. Bartók and Kodály would later assimilate the folk idioms of Eastern Europe into their own individual compositional styles, and Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello is one of the works that shows this influence most strongly.

Written in 1914, soon after Kodály had returned from a trip gathering Magyar folksongs, the Duo was first performed at an all-Kodály concert in Budapest on May 7, 1918, by the musicians for whom it was written: violinist Imre Waldbauer and cellist Jenö Kerpely. The combination of violin and cello is rare, and it presents special problems for the composer. The violin and cello have similar voices, but they are linear, melodic instruments, and their combination lacks the rich harmonic foundation that a piano would provide. With such limited resources, the composer must create music varied enough to maintain interest.

Kodály solves these problems ingeniously. First, he makes extensive use of folk material, quoting actual peasant dances and children’s songs and writing themes of his own that depend heavily on Magyar folk idioms. Second, he writes brilliantly for the instruments. Waldbauer and Kerpely were virtuoso musicians, and Kodály had their abilities in mind when he wrote music that leaps between the two instruments, soars through their complete ranges, and is full of rhythmic freedom and bright color. And finally he uses the two instruments to suggest a harmonic context for the music. Kodály’s music is never genuinely dissonant, for it remains locked around tonal centers, but the Duo bends traditional key signatures even as it works to suggest them–such harmonic freshness is part of the music’s appeal.

The very beginning of the Duo is a perfect illustration of Kodály’s method. It opens with the cello’s soaring, heroic theme, which is punctuated by violin chords that provide the harmonic context. But within seconds the instruments exchange roles: now the violin sings while the cello accompanies with arpeggiated chords. This movement, in sonata form, is full of soaring melodies, bright instrumental colors, and vital rhythms.

The cello opens the Adagio with a long and quiet theme. The development, fugal at times, takes the violin into its highest register before the quiet close. The last movement begins with a solo for the violin so free in rhythm that it seems at first like a fantasia. But the cello quickly enters, and the slow introduction gives way to a very animated movement. This concluding Presto contains a children’s song collected by Kodály on one of his folksong-gathering tours.

Falun, Village Scenes, Sz.78

Born March 25, 1881, Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary
Died September 26, 1945, New York City
Approximate Duration: 13 minutes

In the early 1920s Bartók went through a transitional period, both as artist and as individual. After completing his two rigorous violin sonatas in 1921-22, he stopped composing for several years, content to rest and restore his creative freshness. He used this time to organize the 2500 Slovak songs he had collected in the Zólyom district of northern Hungary in 1915-16. There were changes in his personal life in these years, as well. In 1923 Bartók divorced his first wife and married one of his piano students, the 20-year-old Ditta Pásztory. Their son Peter was born the following summer, and in the happy afterglow of his new marriage and the birth of a son, Bartók composed Village Scenes, a cycle of five songs for soprano and piano, based on some of the Slovak songs he had just organized and depicting a young girl’s progress from youth through marriage to motherhood.
Bartók completed Village Scenes in December 1924, but the music had to wait two years for its première, which soprano Mária Basilides and the composer gave in Budapest on December 8,1926. Bartók dedicated Village Scenes to his young wife.

The topic of a girl’s progress from childhood through marriage has been a fertile one for composers. Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben (1840) is one of the best examples, but a more recent example was probably on Bartók’s mind when he composed Village Scenes. Stravinsky’s Les Noces had been premièred only the year before, in 1923, and Bartók very much admired Les Noces, with its rugged depiction of a peasant wedding. Les Noces may have been on Bartók’s mind when he conceived his own wedding cycle, but musically Village Scenes is quite different from the Stravinsky score. Bartók does without the ritualized chanting and massive percussion effects of Les Noces and in their place offers a greater emphasis on melody and clarity of presentation. While he uses authentic Slovak songs as the basis for his own composition, Bartók does not simply arrange those songs for voice and piano. Instead, these are re-compositions, often based on motivic development– Bartók remains true to the idiom and the melodies of the folk music he loved so much, but those are only the starting point for his own music.

If Bartók does without the chanting of the Stravinsky score, he nevertheless relies on a different vocal technique, parlando, in which singers’ words mirror the inflections and accents of speech. The first two songs make use of this technique: the soprano sings/speaks her line above bare chordal accompaniment from the piano. In the first song, Haymaking, the girl daydreams as she stands with her rake in a field. The second, At the Bride’s, is a more reserved song as she looks ahead to her wedding. The third song, The Wedding, is the one most like Les Noces. Here Bartók combines two different Slovak songs to create a multi-layered portrait of conflicting emotions: in the quiet music the bride looks back on her girlhood (now put aside forever), while in the fast music the wedding guests celebrate noisily. In Cradle Song, the young mother sings her infant to sleep; she is both overpowered by her love for the baby and stung by the knowledge that at some point he too will marry and leave her. Lads’ Dance, an exuberant and rhythmic portrait of happy children at play, completes the cycle.

A NOTE ON TITLES: This piece is invariably referred to by the title Village Scenes, but its official title is Falun, a term that in Hungarian refers to the most extreme sort of rural community, one made up of just a few structures. That clearly was the sort of setting Bartók had in mind for these songs. And Bartók’s Village Scenes should not be confused with his Three Village Scenes. In 1925 Serge Koussevitzky asked Bartók for a piece, and the composer responded by re-scoring the final three songs for small woman’s chorus and chamber orchestra. Koussevitzky led the première of Three Village Scenes in New York City on February 1, 1927.

String Quartet No. 4, Sz.91

Approximate Duration: 23 minutes

Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet of 1928 is a work of extraordinary concentration. Over its brief span, materials that at first seem unpromising are transformed into music of breathtaking virtuosity and expressiveness. Bartók’s biographer Halsey Stevens suggests that the Fourth “is a quartet almost without themes, with only motives and their development,” and one of the most remarkable things about the Fourth Quartet is that virtually all of it is derived from a simple rising-and-falling figure announced by the cello moments into the first movement. Bartók takes this six-note thematic cell through a stunning sequence of changes that will have it appear in an almost infinite variety of rhythms, harmonies, and permutations. So technical a description makes this music sound cerebral and abstract. In fact, the Fourth Quartet offers some of the most exciting music Bartók ever wrote.
The Fourth Quartet is one of the earliest examples of Bartók’s fascination with arch form, an obsession that would in some ways shape the works he composed over the rest of his life. There had been hints of symmetrical formal structures earlier, but the Fourth Quartet is the first explicit and unmistakable statement of that form–the form here is palindromic. At the center of this five-movement quartet is a long slow movement, which Bartók described as “the kernel” of the entire work. Surrounding that central movement are two scherzos (“the inner shell”) built on related material, and the entire quartet is anchored on its powerful opening and closing movements (“the outer shell”), which also share thematic material. There is a breathtaking formal balance to the Fourth Quartet, and that balance is made all the more remarkable by its concentration: the entire five-movement work spans only 23 minutes.

Bartók’s Third Quartet had seen a new attention to string sonority, but the Fourth takes us into a completely new sound-world. It marks the first appearance of the “Bartók pizzicato” (the string plucked so sharply that it snaps off the fingerboard), but there are many other new sounds here as well: strummed pizzicatos, fingered ninths, chords arpeggiated both up-bow and down-bow. If the Third Quartet had opened up a new world of sound for Bartók, in the Fourth he luxuriates in those sounds, expanding his palette, yet employing these techniques in the service of the music rather than as an end in themselves.

Many observers have been tempted to describe the outer movements of the Fourth Quartet as being in sonata form, and it is true that they are structured–generally–on the notion of exposition, development, and recapitulation. But to try to push these movements into a traditional form is to violate them. The outer movements of the Fourth Quartet do not divide easily into component sections, and in fact the entire quartet is characterized by a continuous eruption and transformation of ideas. Themes develop even as they are being presented and continue to evolve even as they are being “recapitulated.” For Bartók, form is a dynamic process rather than a structural plan.

The Allegro opens with an aggressive tissue of terraced entrances, and beneath them, almost unobtrusively, the cello stamps out the quartet’s fundamental thematic cell in the seventh measure. This tight chromatic cell (all six notes remain within the compass of a minor third) will then be taken through an infinite sequence of expansions: from this pithy initial statement through inversions, expansions to more melodic shapes, and finally to a close on a massive restatement of that figure.

If the outer movements are marked by a seething dynamism, the three interior movements takes us into a different world altogether. Bartók marks the second movement Prestissimo, con sordino and mutes the instruments throughout. The outer sections are built on the opening theme, which is announced by viola and cello in octaves. The central section, which does not relax the tempo in any way, rushes through a cascade of changing sonorities– glissandos, pizzicatos, grainy sul ponticello bowing–before the return of the opening material. This movement comes to a stunning close: glissandos swoop upward and the music vanishes on delicate harmonics.

At the quartet’s center lies one of Bartók’s night-music movements. Textures here are remarkable. At the beginning Bartók asks the three upper voices–the accompaniment–to alternate playing without and with vibrato: the icy stillness of the former contrasts with the warmer texture of vibrato. Beneath these subtly-shifting sonorities, the cello has a long and passionate recitative that has its roots in Hungarian folk music, and the first violin continues with a series of soaring trills suggestive of bird calls.

The fourth movement is the companion to the second, this one played entirely pizzicato. The viola’s main theme is a variant of the principal theme of the second movement, here opened up into a more melodic shape. This use of pizzicato takes many forms in this movement: the snapped “Bartók pizzicato,” arpeggiated chords, strummed chords, glissandos.
Brutal chords launch the final movement. This is the counterpart to the opening movement, but that opening Allegro is now counterbalanced by this even faster Allegro molto. Quickly the two violins outline the main theme, a further variation of the opening cell, which returns in its original form as this music dances along its sizzling way. As if to remind us how far we have come, the quartet concludes with a powerful restatement of that figure.