Bach and Bartok: A Conversation

In the 1940s, Bela Bartok heard the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin play Bach’s solo sonata for violin in C major at a concert in Asheville, North Carolina. Inspired, Bartok composed his own sonata for solo violin, dedicating it to Menuhin. Reflecting what was all to common a trend, Menuhin found the composition too difficult to play and requested some changes. This reportedly affected the harmonics, although since most (if not all) recordings reflect Menuhin’s preference for standard 12 notes of Western music, rather than Bartok’s original score which utilized quarter-tones (that is a 24-tone scale). Nonetheless, Menuhin described the second movement as “perhaps the most aggressive, brutal music I was ever to play.” While absolutely a product of the Modern Period, Bartok’s composition, from its use of counterpoint to its hint of chaccone and the use of fugal composition, wears its homage to Bach on its sleeve.

Of the many recordings to select from, here are two favorites. Hilary Hahn performing the Bach and Gidon Kremer wrestling with the Bartok. Listening to Kremer, easily the most technically proficient violinist of his generation, you can hear exactly why the Bartok is considered to be right at edge of what is possible to play on the violin. Naturally, Bartok composed it at the piano.

J.S. Bach, Sonata for Solo Violin in C Major:

Bela Bartok, Sonata for Solo Violin:

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