Bartók: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion

Much of the music for which Bartók is remembered was written in the 1930s, often in response to commissions from abroad. At this time, Bartók's harmony was becoming more diatonic. The move from inward chromaticism to a glowing major (though modally tinged) tonality is central to the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937), both written for performance in Switzerland at a time when the political situation in his native Hungary was growing ever more threatening.

The Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion was commissioned by the Swiss section of the International Society for Contemporary Music. It received its premiere in Basel on January 16th, 1938. The piano parts were played by the composer himself and his second wife, Ditta, and it has since become one of the key chamber works of the 20th century.

The score calls for two pianists and two percussionists. The latter play seven instruments: timpani, xylophone, side drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and tam-tam, and, in Bartók’s own words, “…these two percussion parts are fully equal in rank to the piano parts…”. Bartók had explored the combination of piano and percussion in his first two piano concertos, especially in the slow movement of the first one, so the Sonata can be seen as both a revival and a development of a previously explored sound-world. Although a partial precedent for this instrumentation can be found in Stravinsky’s Les Noces (1923), the originality of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion represents the culmination of Bartók’s experiments with those sonorities.

The impressive first movement Assai lento – Allegro troppo starts with a quiet and ominous introductory “chaos”. This leads to a large-scale sonata structure with three distinct subjects: the first one assertive and open; the second, mysterious; and the third, an energetic fugato. But the thematic development is, on the other hand, so continuous, that the movement defies the traditional division into sections. The second movement Lento, ma non troppo belongs to what has been called “night music”: colours and textures evoke the atmosphere and concrete sounds of the night. The finale Allegro non troppo is a rondo-sonata form whose character contrasts with the first and second movements. It has a very open, earthy vigour, and a driving impetus throughout the movement. New themes built up from the basic material are presented and treated in ingenious canons and vigorous fugattos that lead to a limpid ending in C major.

The continuous interaction between all parts, along with Bartók’s inventiveness and rich imagination, make the Sonata exciting and colourful. The work is also a masterpiece in musical construction: a complex network of interval and key-relationships, canonic devices, and subtle thematic transformations bind the work together and make it one of Bartók’s most formidable musical structures.

Javier Arrebola © kohoBeat 2008