Dreams of Love
Music by Béla Bartók and Felix Mendelssohn
Béla Bartók’s Hungarian Peasant Songs for Orchestra
Sometimes situations develop as a result of seemingly trivial coincidences that influence one’s entire life. In September 1904, during a visit to southern Slovakia, Béla Bartók heard a kitchen maid singing. The melodies from Transylvania made such a strong impression on the 23-year-old that he wrote them down immediately. Bartók’s fascination for the folklore of eastern and southern Europe was awakened, and it stayed with him for the rest of his life. “Parallel to composing I became increasingly interested in the study of musical folklore – beginning with Hungarian material, then continuing to that of the neighbouring peoples,” he recounted. Bartók initially arranged the Hungarian Peasant Songs heard at these concerts for piano, completing them in 1918, although he hesitated a long time before publishing them. A revised and expanded version of fifteen songs did not appear in print until 1920. Bartók arranged selections from these peasant songs for orchestra in 1933, again indicating how much he admired these melodies.
The composer began the orchestral version with a melancholy ballad in the form of a passacaglia. The austere lament in 7/8 metre, scored for strings, woodwinds and brass, dazzles as though reflected through a prism. The brief songs that follow seem like distant variations of the opening work. They have a great deal of rhythmic drive and are often dissonant, with rich nuances in timbre. The stately Moderato and lyrical Allegretto reveal unmistakable echoes of eastern European late Romanticism, not only in character but also in the choice of instruments. The closing work of the cycle begins with a dance melody, shrilly orchestrated, then quite archaic, almost wild. Only with effort does the swirling round dance come to a close.
“In a narcotic dream”: Béla Bartók’s First Violin Concerto
If the Hungarian Peasant Songs reflect Bartók the researcher and arranger, the Violin Concerto No. 1, Sz. 36, composed a few years earlier, presents a completely different, private and romantic side of the young composer. Bartók’s love for the violinist Stefi Geyer provided the inspiration for the composition. She was seven years younger than the composer, beautiful, and was regarded as one of the most talented students at the Academy of Music in Budapest. Bartók had fallen head over heels in love with the young woman at their first meeting. He made the first sketches for the violin concerto “in a narcotic dream” (as he wrote in a letter) during the summer of 1906; it was to be dedicated to Stefi Geyer.
Bartók designed the outer structure of the work very innovatively. Two contrasting movements, one voluptuous, the other propulsive and extremely virtuosic, form a kind of diptych. The opening bars of the Andante sostenutoalready pose a particular challenge for the solo violin: contrary to all conventions, Bartók has it begin without accompaniment. The other strings do not join in the highly dissonant melodic line until a few bars later. Again and again the music surges and ebbs organically; in quick succession Bartók calls for expressiveness ranging from a soft pianissimo to multiple forte espressivo. After a brief intermezzo the soloist begins a second opulent cantilena which builds up even more intensely. It comes to a close in the highest register of the violin, lost in reverie yet expressive. The movement ends like it began, with a distinctive motif of an ascending four-note chord – Bartók himself referred to these notes as a leitmotif for his beloved.
The Allegro giocoso, which follows without a break, is characterized by virtuosity and a lively exchange between the solo instrument and orchestra. The solo part now begins with an abrasive motif, however. The harshness of the dissonances, the often unconventional harmony and eruptive, almost percussive sound effects already anticipate Bartók’s later style; the orchestration of the movement also draws on late Romantic models, however. The theme is charged with tremendous, almost shimmering energy; a new section, marked “Meno allegro e rubato”, is more tranquil, with flowing triplets. During a brief third section the low strings introduce a rumbling figure with an appoggiatura, which is taken up by the violin and orchestra in a rapid interplay. In the last section of the concerto Bartók inserted two brief episodes into the score as reminiscences: a dancelike folk melody reflects the “times that were still happy. Although it was only half-happiness”, as the composer commented in a letter to the woman he adored. The leitmotif from the first movement also returns again later.
Enchanting Music: Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream op. 61
Light, joy, elegance and high spirits – the music that Felix Mendelssohn composed for William Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream is marvellously interwoven with these elements. The fourteen-part incidental music, from which Iván Fischer has chosen selections for this concert, was written for a production commissioned by the Prussian King Frederick William IV. The premiere took place at the theatre of the New Palace in Potsdam on 14 October 1843, in celebration of the birthday of the artistically inclined monarch. Mendelssohn had already laid the foundation for his op. 61 as a teenager. Exhilarated after participating in a performance of Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to Oberon, Mendelssohn completed the concert overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream op. 21 in August 1826.
The composer brilliantly succeeded in bringing all the subsequent movements of the incidental music to life with the same vitality and inspiration. The graceful, elfin Scherzo is vibrant, with jaunty staccato runs in the flutes and violins. The light, shimmering tone of the flutes also lends colour to the orchestral accompaniment in the song with chorus “You spotted snakes” as two elves prepare the bed for the queen Titania. The Intermezzo is fascinating not only because of its urgent character but also the fast-paced alternating confrontation of the strings and woodwinds. A playful, earthy round dance with traditional drone sounds forms the coda of this movement; the score notes: “Here the workmen appear in the woods.”
Tranquillity and a relaxed mood prevail in the Nocturne, which opens with an expansive melody in the horns and bassoons that is then continued passionately by the clarinets, strings and flutes. Introduced by arpeggiated trumpet fanfares, the Wedding March is one of Mendelssohn’s best-known works. The jubilant characteristic piece accompanies the wedding of the Athenian rulers Theseus and Titania at the end of the fourth act. The simple Funeral March, on the other hand, is deliberately scored sparsely with clarinet, bassoon and trombone for the scene in which the workmen dilettantishly enact the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. The finale returns to material from the opening and end of the concert overture. Mendelssohn augments the original score with an ethereal chorus of elves: “Through the house give glimmering light, by the dead and drowsy fire. Every elf and fairy sprite hop as light as bird from briar. And this ditty, after me, sing, and dance it trippingly.” The woodwind chords from the introduction, accompanied by strings and a soft timpani roll, provide the backdrop for Puck’s closing words: “So, good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, and Robin [Puck] shall restore amends.”