Bartok's Divertimento for Strings
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Bartok's Divertimento for Strings

Bartók's speedily-composed masterwork, the Divertimento for Strings. Discussion, analysis and performance practice of his last work composed in Hungary.

During the summer of 1939, Bartók was in despair as he saw the stirrings of the Second World War and his fellow Hungarians rushing to align themselves with Hitler.  It was also at this time that his mother fell terminally ill. He felt that his inspiration was running dry, so it was quite a relief when his friend Paul Sacher, the director of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, commissioned Bartók to write a piece for string orchestra at the conductor's chalet in Switzerland. Bartók had previously composed Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) on commission from Sacher. The bucolic setting proved to be the needed respite from his anxiety, and for two weeks, Bartók composed with tremendous spontaneity. The Divertimento discussed here was the result.

Bartók on the Excalibur, crossing the Atlantic to New York in 1940.  Photo courtesy of Peter Bartók.

The piece was premiered in Basel on June 11, 1940, conducted by Sacher. The composer's mother had died the previous December, and Bartók felt that he no longer had any reason to stay in Hungary. He emigrated to the United States in October 1940 and never returned to his native land.

Bartók described the Divertimento to Sacher as follows: "First movement sonata form, second movement approximately ABA, third movement rondo-like."

The piece opens with the first violins, introducing a theme in the style of a folk song over a strumming accompaniment in F major and alternating 9/8 and 6/8 meters. Almost immediately the orchestra breaks up into a small group of solo instruments contrasted with a tutti, much like the Baroque concerto grosso. Following a contrapuntal development section, the main theme is recapitulated, somewhat disguised as an extension of the development.

The Molto adagio second movement is songlike and rather somber. The entire orchestra is muted, and the second violins present a chromatic melody over murmuring lower strings. The first violins introduce the second section with a whispering passage, and are soon joined by the second violins and violas in a contrasting section. The three-note ostinato that opens the movement also serves as a bridge to the recapitulation of the main theme.

The final movement, marked Allegro assai, opens with a quasi-improvisational introduction leading into another folk-inspired melody in the first violins, much like the first movement. Also, as in the first movement, the mood is lively and while the impression of the piece is one of simplicity, Bartók use complex fugal procedures. The theme is inverted and after another short fugato, a solo cello plays a short rhapsodic figure, which is picked up by the first violin and becomes a cadenza. Following a short ironic polka melody, a brisk coda brings the piece to its vigorous conclusion.

* Author's addendum:

*  The embedded soundfiles above are possibly the best present-day performance available online.  I Solisti di Zagreb is usually tough to beat in the performance practice of Eastern European classics.  Conductorless and of one mind, this is live string chamber music at its best.  Their superb technique and artistry combine with this elemental circle without chairs, making for an incredible performance experience, true to the composer's intentions.  It's great music coupled with even better playing.  These are only examples.  Please support working artists by purchasing music and art legally.  Thank you.

* For further reading on the music of Béla Bartók, please see my other Factoidz articles on this composer:

https://knoji.com/bartok-in-new-york-1943-concerto-for-orchestra/

https://knoji.com/the-death-of-bartok-concerto-for-viola-and-orchestra-op-posth/

https://knoji.com/bartoks-romanian-folk-dances-191517/

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Comments (4)

Very nice presentation. Not only do I LOVE Bartok, I'm especially fond of string pieces. (Have you done Prokofiev's violin concertos, yet?)

Thank you, James.

Great classic pieces as always, Ileen.

Thanks so much, Will.

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