Bartók and the violinists

Zoltán Székely, József Szigeti, Stefi Geyer, Yehudi Menuhin, Jelly Arányi… All violinists who are closely tied to the world of Bartók both professionally and personally. To the Bartók whose two violin concertos, string quartets, chamber works written for violin and piano, and iconic Solo Sonata are to this day some of the most exciting elements in violin literature.

We know that Bartók composed his parts for violin independently, but he often asked violinist acquaintances to go through them with a performer’s eye. “The parts are so instrumental that I can hardly believe he didn’t play the violin,” says Barnabás Kelemen. “It is not enough that his works can be played superbly, but it is a fantastic feeling from a specifically violin technique aspect to play them. The refinement of technique in playing the music of Bartók is on as high a plane as the actual content of his works.”

For Bartók, the close connection with violinists never meant that he would endeavour to serve the performers alone. “He must have had a very determined concept of music independent of performers,” says Pekka Kuusisto. “Bartók’s method of writing for the violin is extremely uniform. One clearly feels that the same person composed the pieces for solo violin as did the Violin Concerto or the string quartets, irrespective of who performed these works for the first time.” Kristóf Baráti is of the belief that in the case of the violin-piano sonatas, it is difficult to decide whether the violinist or the pianist has the harder job. “I think that the world of Bartók is instrument-independent in the most positive sense,” says Baráti.

Bartók dedicated his violin works to some of the greatest artists of the day including Zoltán Székely, József Szigeti and Yehudi Menuhin. We should not forget, however, the role of female violinists that were close to him. “The Arányi sisters, Jelly and Adila, and Stefi Geyer exercised just as much of an influence on Bartók as Székely, Szigeti or Menuhin,” is how Barnabás Kelemen puts it. “He dedicated both his sonatas to Jelly Arányi, and Zoltán Kocsis once said that he reckoned it could not be ruled out that he would have dedicated the two rhapsodies to her had Ditta had not been so jealous of all the adoration.”

Bartók a hegedűművész Arányi testvérpárral, Jellyvel és Adilával Londonban, 1922.


There is no lack of strict and precise instructions to performers in the sheet music of Bartók, but this does not mean that his music demands fixed play in every single detail. “A kind of freedom should always be present in the performance and this freedom does not contradict the composer’s instructions. You have to speak the language that the composer represents with his own stylistic marks, only this can provide space for freedom of the performer,” says Baráti. Speaking about his performance of the music of Bartók, Kelemen highlighted the significance of those spontaneous moments and moods in which the most profound musical associations are to be discovered. “We must always remain open to that channel that cannot be expressed in words through which the composer came into contact with the powers above at the time of writing the piece, and through which we, too, the performers, are able to communicate the music.” These spontaneous moments are evident in a solo performance just as much as they are in a string quartet performance. “Bartók’s quartets are full of moments where although we learn how we react to each other, in the given situation this connectedness between one another always manifests itself in a different way.”

Sándor Végh once said, recalls Pekka Kuusisto, that Bartók aimed his most specific notations first and foremost at those who didn’t understand his music, and numerous extremely detailed composer’s instructions were included because of the bad experiences in this area. Not only did Bartók dictate the tempo with metronome speeds for many of his works, but sometimes he even notated the time of movement parts to the second. A little known note of his written in to the piano extract of the 1941 Boosey & Hawkes edition of the Violin Concerto indicates, quite naturally, that Bartók was well aware of the ‘here and now’ character of the performer, and was not interested in uniformizing the performance of his works. Bartók writes: ‘The timings that can be found as movement parts and at the end of the movement are figures from a specific performance. They do not mean that the timing must be kept precisely the same for every performance; they are just like the metronome instructions, only guidelines for the performer.’

As to the question of what he would ask Bartók if the chance arose to meet him, Barnabás Kelemen, with an eye on playing together, says he would respond thusly: “Dear Master, let’s play through the first or second sonata together.” On the other hand, Baráti Kristóf would ask Bartók to show him music that he is currently engaged with, whether his own work or a piece by any other composer.  “My only interest would be how Bartók dealt with music before he drew his own conclusions and set them down on paper.” Pekka Kuusisto comes up with the most surprising response: besides telling Bartók what a fantastic composer he considers the Hungarian to be, he would like to ask him about a strange incident that occurred in 1942. The American composer David Zinman tells the story that in his childhood he attended the high school for music in Manhattan and one day he and his friends noticed ‘terrible sounds’ coming from one of the apartments near the school, so they started throwing stones at the window. It later turned out that the apartment they had been throwing stones at was at that time the residence of Bartók.

Is there a Bartók work for violin that the artists consider would fill the number one position on an imaginary ‘best of’ list? “It is my belief that the performer is best off always considering that the works he or she has just played are the favourites,” says Baráti. In quartet terms, Kelemen reckons that the final movement of the second string quartet is the one he feels closest to, and of Bartók’s solo pieces he considers the Violin Concerto one of the most significant compositions of the 20th century. “The work explores the most extreme human emotions, the greatest depths and heights, and while it rests on the ancient foundations of Hungarian folk music, it is incredibly universal music.” Kuusisto thinks that Contrasts is a work out of which people feel that there is a future. “With the perfect combination of the different musical languages, he encourages understanding among people and sends the message that many different elements are able to do more in a unit than separately. Contrasts is communication through and through.”

Anna Belinszky