Upheaval engulfed Béla Bartók in 1939. The Nazis had taken over his publisher, Universal, jeopardizing his intellectual property and his income, and his ailing mother tied him to his native Hungary, despite the looming threat of war. The conductor Paul Sacher provided some welcome consolation when he commissioned Bartók to write a new work for the Basel Chamber Orchestra. Sacher even offered Bartók the use of his home in Saanen, Switzerland, over the summer. Bartók accepted the commission and the vacation, and after fifteen days of composing (and avoiding newspapers) that August, he completed his Divertimento for Strings.
Bartók had written a previous work for Sacher, the stern Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936). For this new commission, and perhaps owing to the surroundings in which it was composed, Bartók adopted a more carefree approach. In titling the work “Divertimento,” he made reference to a Classical form of light-hearted amusement fit for parties and other celebrations. The score’s lean ensemble and dancing rhythms reflect the divertimento tradition of Mozart and his contemporaries, while the textures owe more to Corelli, Handel, Bach and all the other Baroque masters of the concerto grosso style. As in those early concertos, this work calls out individual voices from the larger string orchestra to create contrasting colors and densities of sound.
The Divertimento’s Allegro non troppo first movement makes a study of three-note fragments drawn from a range of musical modes, many redolent of the Hungarian folksongs that Bartók studied so exhaustively. The first three melodic notes descend F – E – D, and then the next scurry down the segment E-flat – D – C. The bluesy conflict between E and E-flat and other such collisions kick off the movement’s playful manipulations of its approachable themes.
In a marked shift of mood, the Molto adagio middle movement circulates from smooth, pacing lines into a swirling cloud of trills before dissipating for a quiet conclusion. The Allegro assai finale clears any lingering angst with a playful tussle through call-and-response melodies, sudden interruptions, a pensive cadenza for solo violin, sarcastic pizzicati (plucking) and glissandi (sliding between notes), and a manic conclusion.
Aaron Grad ©2013