Violin Sonata N° 1 | Violin Sonata N° 2 | Romanian Folk Dances





Paul Griffiths

From Paul Griffiths, Bartók, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1984) pp. 99-106

For Bartók, doubting the value of folk music was tantamount to doubting the value of himself, and his creative confusion in the early 1920s is amply documented in the violin sonatas. No other large-scale work by him—and the First Sonata is one of his longest works, playing for thirty-five minutes—has harmonic progressions so complex, themes so indefinite, forms so difficult to perceive. Indeed, the sonatas are less ‘Bartókian’ than, say, the Second Quartet or The Miraculous Mandarin, and for reasons stemming from this they have often been criticized—as if, for example, the sonata structure of the First Sonata’s opening movement were a failed attempt at a design better achieved in the Fourth Quartet, when one can more generously and usefully see it as a late return to the Reger line of restless, asymmetrical sonata writing. More generally, too, Bartók’s uncertainty of direction communicates itself through great expressive richness and much beauty of line and texture, not dimmed by the fact that the sonatas turned out to be a cul-de-sac at a bewildering crossroads.

Anna-Eva Bergman, N° 26-1962 Feu, 1962

Their nature has much to do with their genre. Bartók had not written for solo violin since the Geyer concerto, and the instrument retains here its airborne world of feeling and caprice; also remembered, just possibly, is Stefi’s motif, for the initial piano texture of the First Sonata is a chiming of seventh chords in G with added sixth chords in C sharp. However, this is very much by the way, and the sonatas were not a personal offering along the lines of the concerto: Bartók wrote them for Jelly d’Arányi, now living in England with her sister and sometimes sharing recitals with him. If there is an autobiographical strand in these sonatas, then it might well concern not d’Arányi but Márta Bartók, for while Bartók’s performing career was beginning to flourish, his marriage was disintegrating. A joint husband-wife letter to the expatriate psychologist Géza Révész of May 1923 contains no hint of domestic turmoil, but by August the marriage was over and Bartók had married another young student of his at the academy, Ditta Pásztory (1903-82), who, like Márta before her, gave birth to a son about a year after her marriage: the wedding was on 28 August 1923, and Péter Bartók, destined to become the composer’s ‘American’ son while his half-brother Béla remained with Márta in Europe, was born on 31 July 1924. Bartók had commemorated the spent passion of a finished relationship before, in the Stefi Geyer concerto and in the op. 15 songs; it may be that the violin sonatas owe some of their emotional turmoil to a similar source.

Anna-Eva Bergman, N° 63-1961 Grand univers aux petits carrés, 1961

The stimulus was, however, also more purely musical. It came from the excited, flamboyant state Bartók’s style had reached in The Miraculous Mandarin, to which the sonatas are in some sense pendants, both picking up echoes from the greater work on Bartók’s desk at the time: the finale of the First, for example, sets out like the Mandarin’s chase from a 2/4 pounding on a fixed tritone-fifth chord. There were also external influences. Because of his withdrawal from public musical activity and then the war, Bartók had been isolated from contact with his composer contemporaries outside Hungary for some years, but now the barriers were down, and the vanguard Stravinsky current in the Mandarin was followed by more unsettling forces in the sonatas. Those who regret the obscurity in these works have tended to blame an unassimilated dose of Schoenberg, and no doubt Bartók did learn much from the piano sonorities of the latter’s. op. 11 as also from his proto-serial conscientiousness in keeping all twelve notes in play. But Bartók’s harmonic manner is his own. His chords typically flicker much more readily with tonalities than Schoenberg’s while avoiding the strong triadic pulls of Berg’s; often, like examples already mentioned in the Mandarin, they contain one strongly consonant and one strongly dissonant interval:

Bartók, Violin Sonata N° 1, first movement

This is from the opening of one of the more strongly urged sections from the First Sonata’s first movement. The piano is making chromatic jumps first upwards and then downwards, with an accented iambic rhythm to add impetus in an atmosphere of dissipated harmonic forces (the alternative is stasis, and the whole sonata can be seen as an exercise in avoiding or else indulging the harmony’s tendency to stand still). In each iamb the first chord is an expression of the six-note set laid out initially as a minor sixth over a tritone, then another minor sixth over a tritone a semitone below. This arrangement changes when the steps are downward, but the second chord is always a minor sixth over a fourth (hence a span of a dissonant minor ninth) with octave doublings. The prominence throughout of the minor sixth in the harmony preserves some consistency, but the second chord feels more at rest than the first simply because it has fewer notes. However, these same chords, and the sets they represent, are also capable of harmonic processes of longer range: the entire first movement, for instance, moves through different forms of the six-note set, which gives rise not only to chords but to thematic motifs, such as the one in the violin called forth by the piano in the quotation above.

Anna-Eva Bergman, N° XB-1956 Icare, 1956

The formal, harmonic and melodic complexity of the First Sonata are all of a piece with its enlarged tonality. Bartók himself is said to have regarded the work as being in C sharp minor, and though this statement causes the same problems as his key ascriptions for the Bagatelles, the problems become rather less if one understands Bartók’s C sharp minor as focused not on the usual triad but on the above-mentioned six-note set in a form consisting of the minor triad with added major third, tritone and sixth (C — E —E —G —G —A ): these are the notes, for example, rippling in the piano at the end of the first movement, though there spelled with flats. At one point, too, there is a reference not to the key of C sharp minor but to the repertory, when the opening violin solo of the slow movement quotes in bars 10-11 the theme that starts Beethoven’s op. 131 quartet:

Bartók, Violin Sonata N° 1, second movement

The presence of this quotation adds to the sense here of self-communion, which is further enhanced by the way the Beethoven thought is adumbrated in bars 8-9 and then progressively distorted as the music continues its climb. Such an impression of a composer thinking his way is not usual in a Bartók adagio: Bartók is normally more fully present in his quick movements, whereas the slow ones are often genre pieces, like the funeral march of the op. 12 pieces, or else there is no real slow movement at all, as in the op. 14 suite. But in the slow movement of the First Violin Sonata there is a feeling of identification, which may have been intensified by the composer’s relationships with young women violinists and also by his experience of peasant fiddling, to which he had given much attention in his Romanian research.

Anna-Eva Bergman, N° 5-1952 Deux formes noires, 1952

Little folk influence, however, is to be detected in the handling of the instruments, other than in the cimbalom-like flurries that had been part of Bartók’s piano style since the 1903 violin sonata.

Anna-Eva Bergman, GB 25-1967 Éclipse, 1967

Instead the gloriously varied textures of the First Sonata, particularly, reflect again the different influences pressing in upon Bartók as he rediscovered contemporary music, and in terms of sonority the most useful models were obviously those in the same genre, especially Debussy’s Violin Sonata (1916-17) and Szymanowski’s Myths (1915), which perhaps stimulated the generosity of ornament and the fine use of harmonics in this sonata. Where Bartók departs from all predecessors, though, is in making the violin so independent of the piano. At the very start, for instance, the piano’s C sharp-coloured cloud is answered by the violin with a sustained C. The line to which this gives rise excludes only two notes: C sharp and its dominant G sharp. Meanwhile the piano also excludes only two notes: C and E flat, those at first most prominent in the violin part. So it continues, and though the finale at least joins the two instruments in vigour, the final cadence expresses only tangential concord, with C sharp major and minor in the piano supporting E major in the violin (the minor third connection of tonalities is another important feature of the sonata’s harmony):

Bartók, Violin Sonata N° 1, third movement

Comparison with the ending of the Second Sonata says much about the difference between the two works:

Bartók, Violin Sonata N° 2, second movement

Here the rich chords of the First Sonata are replaced by barer essentials, and the harmony is correspondingly clearer, the form more straightforward. Also, although the violin and the piano keep their own identities, their paths belong more evidently to the same network, as here, where the piano’s slow descent in fifths is mirrored by the winging ascent of the violin in F sharp major-minor, to which it keeps until its final surprise landing on E in anticipated agreement with the piano—though this cannot be such a surprise when the register is so high as to attenuate sense of pitch. In further contrast with the First Sonata, the Second ends on a simple major triad, if one spread over more than five octaves: this must be the oddest statement of C major in the repertory, and though C major was indeed the key that Bartók felt this sonata to be in, any more confident assertion is not to be expected. To be sure, the C of the Second Sonata is more apparent than the C sharp of the First, but it is heavily compromised, particularly by the presence of the tritone F sharp as substitute dominant (the main theme even avoids G in order to press the claims of F sharp).

Anna-Eva Bergman, GB 55-1974 Petites vagues, 1974

For all the differences between the sonatas, however, they are agreed on one thing: the necessity of ending with a rondo of stamping dances of the kind already encountered in the Second Quartet (the finale of the First Sonata is especially close to this), in the Scherzo of the Four Pieces op. 12 and in the grotesque puppet’s dance in The Wooden Prince. Only the approach is different. The First Sonata has the conventional three-movement pattern, Allegro appassionato – Adagio – Allegro, whereas the Second has just two continuous movements: a Molto moderato in concise but rhapsodic sonata form, ending with a striking recall of the glowing body music from The Miraculous Mandarin, and then leading into the finale, which twice pointedly remembers the first movement. The effect, then, is that of a single introduction-and-allegro form, and a more narrowed move towards the finale than in the First Sonata, where the three movements, diverse though they be, are all of equal weight.

Anna-Eva Bergman, L6-1963 Horizon, 1963





SongHa Choi, violin & Carson Becke, piano







Lara St. John, violin & Matt Herskowitz, piano

Béla Bartók, Joseph Szigeti & Zoltán Székely




Joshua Walden

From Joshua Walden, Sounding Authentic: The Rural Miniature & Musical Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2014) pp. 196-202

Joseph Szigeti and Zoltán Székely, in their 1930s recordings of Székely’s edition of Romanian Folk Dances, demonstrate the influence of Bartók’s descriptions of his fieldwork and of contemporary urban attitudes toward rural cultures, to develop a performance style that evokes rural musicianship as formally untrained but emotionally soulful, spontaneous, and authentic.

Ernst Friedrich Hausmann, Gypsy Woman with Lute

Bartók often considered it fruitful to collaborate with performers, and in his work as an editor of piano repertoire, he concerned himself with performance interpretation. He developed a system for notating minutely differentiated articulations as prescriptions for performers in editions of his own piano works and Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and Notebooks of Anna Magdalena Bach, and he joined with Székely to create symbols of articulation in some of his compositions for violin. Early in his career he argued against composers’ attempts to control all aspects of performance, however, acknowledging that elements such as timbre and intonation cannot be precisely notated but will be decided upon by performers. Bartók wrote thus of the performance of art and folk music: the interpretation of folk music is very similar to the interpretation of great artists: there is no set uniformity, there is the same diversity in perpetual transformation.

Orest Kiprensky, Gypsy Woman Holding a Branch of Myrtle, 1819

Székely and Szigeti were both violin students of Hubay at the Budapest Academy of Music. They began collaborating with Bartók in the 1920s, and developed their styles of performing rural miniatures in a conscious attempt to represent in their playing the sounds of rural violin performances. Bartók played his wax cylinder fieldwork recordings for both musicians. In 1928, he first showed Székely his two Rhapsodies based on his Romanian folk music research—Bartók dedicated the first Rhapsody to Szigeti and the second to Székely—and Székely recalled: Later that evening after the excitement of seeing the new rhapsodies, Bartók invited me to listen with him to the early recordings of his folk music collection. In his book With Strings Attached, Szigeti writes: I see Bartók in his villa in the hills of Buda—his tables, couch and piano littered with those hard-earned discs of folk-fiddlers, mostly unaccompanied, which he had recorded during many epic years of folk-lore exploration. He plays them to me while I follow the intricate, almost hieroglyphic signs on the literal transcriptions he has made of these, as he has of thousands of others. Putting me to the test: whether I would recognize the sometimes infinitesimally small rhythmic or melodic shreds that went into Rhapsody No. 1, which he dedicated to me in 1928; making the distinction, while discussing these themes, between the unimaginative, premeditated incorporation of folklore material into a composition, and that degree of saturation with the folklore of one’s country which unconsciously and decisively affects the composer’s melodic invention, his palette, his rhythmic imaginings.

John Philip, A Gypsy Girl, 1860

A comparison of Bartók’s wax cylinder recordings of rural violinists with Szigeti’s and Székely’s commercial discs shows clearly that the latter musicians did not attempt to sound in their playing exactly like Bartók’s ethnographic sources. Szigeti and Székely perform in the style prescribed by their conservatory training: their timbres are generally clear and crisp, and their rhythms steady overall. They play on well-preserved violins. But it is evident that performing with Bartók, discussing his research with him, and listening to the wax cylinder recordings contributed to their development of a style of playing his rural miniatures that involved the use of aural gestures that signified rural performance.

Samuel John Peploe, Gypsy, 1898

Székely described one of these gestures in a discussion of his rendition of Bartók’s second Rhapsody. In a performance of the work in an arrangement for violin and orchestra, with Ernst von Dohnanyi as conductor, when Székely reached the violin’s entrance in the section marked friss (fast), he played a rapid passage of notes with marcato (marked) articulation, ‘on the string in the peasant style.’ According to Székely, Bartók’s rural informants typically played without lifting the bow, and he endeavored to imitate this style. Bartók approved, stating, ‘You played it very well. You played it like a peasant’.

Szigeti, Fingerings in Rhapsody No. 1, Bartók

Szigeti also explained how he attempted to develop a ‘folk-like’ performance style, in interpreting the first Rhapsody. He devised a complicated scheme of fingerings at the start of the friss section of this work: in a passage that can easily be accomplished by using consecutive fingers in the first position on the D string, Szigeti proposed an awkward positioning of the left hand that requires the violinist to perform challenging bow crossing and shifts (Example 1). Szigeti writes: Bartók was in wholehearted agreement that this passage should be played mostly on two strings, in order to bring out the ‘folk-fiddler’ quality of the tune, instead of with the normal, comfortable fingering marked underneath, which makes of it something citified, lacking in precisely the character he was aiming for. The work generally breathes this folk-music, outdoor atmosphere.

Robert Henri, Gypsy

Szigeti’s self-consciously awkward fingering in the first Rhapsody is designed to make ‘noise’: rather than its more simple alternatives, Szigeti’s fingering requires the bow to make complicated string crossings, which is likely to produce rough scratching noises, as well as imperfect intonation. Székely’s marcato bowing in the second Rhapsody is similarly ‘noisy,’ eschewing the clean sound of a bow that is lifted or gently changed in direction at the end of each note, in favor of the crunching that most violinists will produce when sudden starts and stops of the right hand are made when the bow retains contact with the string.

Robert Henri, Gypsy, 1912

Elsewhere, Szigeti recommends that young violinists take advantage of Bartók’s Forty-Four Duos as a crucial pedagogical tool possessing characteristics which will prove to be a key to the Rhapsodies, the Concerto, the two Sonatas of 1921, and the Romanian and Hungarian Dances and folk-tunes. In particular, the Forty-Four Duos provide schooling in bow articulation, in the realization of a declamatory or parlando line, of accentuating cross rhythms, that at first seem to ‘go against the grain’ but turn out to be perfectly convincing, in addition to teaching about different sorts of vibrato, bow articulation, pressure, and bow-speed that come in handy in the performance of Bartók’s compositions based on folk music.

Transcription of Szigeti’s 1930 recording of ‘Stick Dance’ (Romanian Folk Dances).
Editorial marks appear below the staff; analytical marks above.

The performance gestures he lists here and recreates in his Rhapsody fingering resemble the fingerings Heifetz published in his editions of Achron’s rural miniatures that accentuate the noise caused as the fingers shift along the strings: all three of these violinists dictate performance suggestions that are designed to make audible the mechanics of violin performance and the technology of the instrument. As a result of the self-conscious ‘violinistic’ quality of the sound, recordings of rural miniatures by these violinists and others who follow their editorial suggestions evoke the sound of a stereotyped rural violinist, as conjured by the urban imagination. Examples 2 and 3 are annotated versions of Székely’s 1925 arrangement of the first movement of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, ‘Jocul cu bâtă (Stick Dance)’ representing what I hear in Szigeti and Székely’s recordings.1 Although the sheet music prescribes a tempo of 80 to the quarter note, Szigeti and Bartók take the music considerably faster, at a metronome level of approximately 100. Both violinists employ gestures that can be interpreted to evoke rural performance techniques. They play this movement generally in a marcato style, with fast-moving bows, initiating the notes with the bow already making firm contact with the string. As their bows change direction of the string without lifting or reducing the tension created by the right hand, Szigeti and Székely produce the ‘noisy’ string changes that Székely advocated as creating sounds representative of the rural violin playing Bartók had heard in his fieldwork.


1 – Szigeti’s recording was made with Bartók at the piano, for Columbia Records in 1930, and Székely’s is accompanied by Géza Frid, for Decca in 1936.

Transcription of Székely’s 1936 recording of ‘Stick Dance’ (Romanian Folk Dances).
Editorial marks appear below the staff; analytical marks above.

In Szigeti’s recording, he modifies his bowing style at the pickup to measure 21, modulating to a legato technique and playing this quieter phrase (marked mezzo-forte, in a sudden reduction of dynamic from the previous accented forte) more gently to set it apart from the rough-hewn timbre of the opening melody. When this passage returns at the pickup to measure 37, however, Szigeti plays marcato, returning to the forceful timbre in which he opened the piece. Szigeti plays heavily on downbeats; in doing so, he mimics the rhythmic patterns of Hungarian poetry and folk song, in which each line begins with an emphasized syllable, because in the Hungarian language, the first syllable of each word receives stress, and sentences tend to start at a higher pitch and veer downward from the first to last syllables.

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, Gypsy woman, 1872

In most cases in which measures open with a pair of sixteenth notes followed by a syncopated quarter note (for example, measures 5, 6, and 7), Szigeti plays these sixteenth notes out of phase with the piano, more quickly than the tempo prescribes as though ‘on top of the beat’, and then extends the syncopated quarter to compensate for the extra time remaining in the beat. He also tends to shorten sixteenth-note pickups (for example, in measure 12). Szigeti drags the tempo in some measures and pushes it forward in others. These choices are typical of an expressive rubato style of interpretive playing on the violin. By playing in a less strict time, he also suggests the movements of bodies in dance.

Octav Bancila, Gypsy Woman with Beads and Pipe, 1915

Melodic gestures in Szigeti’s playing that do not appear in the score include one grace note, a D in measure 28, and occasional slides between pitches, most notably in measures 6 and 7. In addition, frequently between measures, between phrases, and before long notes, Szigeti breaks the melody by removing the bow from the string, like a brief aspiration. Most of the double- and triple-stopped chords are played in a single violent, crunching bow stroke, hitting all pitches at once; but the quadruple stop in measure 15 is played with an emphatic roll, as the bow hits first the lower two notes and then the upper two after a fraction of a sixteenth beat. While he plays these chords in a grainy timbre, Szigeti extracts a more nuanced expressivity from many of the long notes, like that in measure 45, which he holds as he vibrates with his left hand. Szigeti plays a pair of natural harmonics that do not appear in the score, on the high E’s in measures 49 and 50.These predict the higher harmonics on beat two of measure 50.

Robert Henri, Gypsy Girl in White, 1916

Despite the rubato that Szigeti employs, speeding up and slowing down individual phrases, Székely exhibits the more radical rhythmic interpretation. He rushes repeatedly through recurring descending melodic patterns, such as appear in measures 8, 16, 25-26, and 42. His grace notes in measures 12, 18, 20, 36 and 44, and an additional unnotated one he adds in measure 23, are short, snappy, and accentuated. At the ends of several measures that lead toward downbeat chords and other accentuated notes, Székely drags the tempo backward (for instance, measures 18, 28, 44, 46, and 48). This stylized gesture allows him to emphasize the following downbeats, which he typically plays with a harsh, ‘chunky’ timbre, taking advantage of the noise produced by a sharp, heavy attack made by the bottom of the bow against the string. Székely also takes momentary pauses between measures, again to add emphasis to the downbeats—for instance, between measures 10 and 11, 12 and 13, and 28 and 29, and before the pickup sixteenth note at the end of measure 20. Finally, Székely dramatically slows down in the concluding three measures, playing strong accented tenutos on the final two downbeats.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, A Gypsy, 1912

The liberties Székely takes with the tempos and rhythms closely resemble the performance of the solo piano version of Romanian Folk Dances that Bartók captured on a 1920 piano roll, in which he adopts a faster speed to play the pairs of sixteenth notes that open so many measures, and holds onto syncopated longer notes mid-bar, oscillating between rushing and dragging. He plays chords with a rapid, accented roll and grace notes with a snapped rapidity. This exaggerated, stylized manner of playing rhythms appears in its peculiarity and dance-like nature to be a representation of a performance Bartók heard in the field. When compared with Bartók’s wax cylinder recording of the fiddlers playing the ‘Jocul cu bâtă’ (Stick Dance), however, it becomes apparent that Bartók’s rubato style does not directly imitate the performances he captured on his phonograph. The original performance is not steady, to be sure, but the violinists who played into the gramophone trumpet perform the rhythms on the whole more smoothly than Bartók and do not rush sixteenth notes or hold back on longer syncopated notes nearly as much as do Bartók or Székely. The lead violinist plays with a fast bow, which causes him to emphasize each change of direction to produce a forceful pulse, resulting in a timbre that is ebullient and occasionally scratchy, rarely legato or tender.

José García y Ramos, Andalucian Gypsy (detail)

Szigeti and Székely’s interpretations of Romanian Folk Dances, in their alterations of the score’s rhythmic prescriptions, their marcato bowing technique, and the ‘noisy’ chords they play with swift motions of the bow, depict an emphatic, partly improvisational, and aggressively physical performance that comes closer to evoking the conceptions of the authenticity of rural dance described by Aladár Tóth and other critics than the sounds of the ethnographic wax cylinder. In creating a style for the performance of Bartók’s folk music arrangements, Szigeti and Székely combine the influence of their discussions with Bartók about his ethnographic discoveries with elements associated, in popular, often nationalist discourse, with the performance techniques of folk musicians.

John Singer Sargent, Gypsy Dancer, 1880

Romanian Folk Dances




Richard Jonathan

Part One Chapter 3

So this is Bartók’s distillation of village ritual, this is ‘Fast Steps’: I delight in your rhythmic élan and the sight of your body swaying; as your legs push up from the floor, I imagine you on your back in a barn. Matteo drives the dance forward; a final flourish, then it’s done. As the applause erupts I realize that in barely five minutes you’ve drawn from your violin centuries of tradition: Nourished by a millennial culture, Bartók’s roots run deep.

Helvetians, Gauls and Romans,
Vandals and Franks,
Conspired to create you, Marietta.

Your roots run deep,
Very deep: Have I any chance
Of sweeping you off your feet?

I have no roots,
I am a nomad; my genealogy
Is a mystery to me.

But watch out, woman!
Home is where the heart is,
And my heart is set on you!

Photo: Danny G. | Unsplash


A literary novel by Richard Jonathan






A literary novel by Richard Jonathan

Available from AMAZON (paper | ebook) & iBOOKS, GOOGLE PLAY, KOBO & NOOK (see LINKS below)





Tessa Lark, violin & Yannick Rafalimanana, piano
















Ravel I

Ravel II





Mara Marietta