‘Eschaton’ liner notes
In 1945, Bartók Béla died in New York City from cancer, after fleeing warring Europe to live in asylum among many other intellectual giants of his day. He had seen quite a bit of success as a young composer in his homeland of Hungary, but while in America, he got little attention next to the likes of composers Stravinsky and Shostakovich.
Bartók was at the end of this life when he was commissioned by violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin to write the solo sonata. Bartók finished the work in March 1944, and Menuhin premiered it that September in New York.
As it turns out, this work, largely regarded as the most significant solo violin work since J.S. Bach’s contribution of ‘Sei Solo,’ would be the last composition Bartók would complete.
Alone, truly alone
J.S. Bach’s ‘Sei Solo,’ or better known as ‘Six Partitas and Sonatas for Solo Violin,’ didn’t always get the attention it now receives. Largely thanks to violinist Joseph Szigeti, another Hungarian, do violinists champion this body of Bach’s work as much as they do.
Interesting, the manuscript to this magnum opus work is titled: ‘Sei Solo.’ Translated from the Italian, this title in fact reads: ‘You’re Alone,’ not ‘Six Solo,’ as it’s, perhaps, incorrectly now known. A misnomer in the manuscript, maybe, but to yield the title accepted today, would necessitate the naming to read: ‘Sei Soli.’ On gloomy days, I much prefer to believe J.S. Bach indeed titled the work as ‘You’re Alone.’
I’ve coupled Bach’s first partita (BWV 1002) with Bartók’s final work in an album titled ‘Eschaton.’ I had Bartók in mind when I insisted on this name, but in addition, 2019 marked the 75 anniversary for the work, the end of World War II, among other aspects whereby I felt ‘the final thing,’ or ‘eschaton,’ seemed appropriate.
These two works are, perhaps, an odd pairing, because BWV 1002 doesn’t get played as much as, say, the ‘g’ or ‘E’ sonata and partita, respectively.
Artistically, the partita in ‘b’ is demanding; what’s one to do with such spare music? None of the other five sonatas and partitas make me feel so exposed as this one. Perhaps it’s the key it’s in. There’s a choked nature to this high tension key, making chords sound oppressed, both for the player and listener. Whatever the reason, the challenge never wanes with BWV 1002.
Challenges are of a different sort, in the Bartók. There’s an endurance aspect to the work, as a good deal of it is marked forte, on top of all the gymnastics that riddle the pages.
The work is serious; as serious as music gets. In fact, it’s pretty dogmatic about remaining in the brow furrowing minor key, where unlike J.S. Bach, even, you usually have palate cleanser movements in major keys even when the sonata or partita is set in minor.
The Bartók sonata isn’t just a technical, serious, and grand work. It’s bombastic, too. Using J.S. Bach’s ‘Sei Solo’ as a scaffolding, Bartók gives us a sprawling Chaconne, as grand as the one Bach gives us in the ‘d’ partita, as well as giving us a Fugue, one so crazed that it belongs in a modern art museum next to a painting of, say, Francis Bacon.
Only in the last two movements of the Bartók, do we get away from the Bachian model, where Bartók gives us a haunting Melody, and a Presto with utterly unique attributes. En fin, Bartók leaves us with a traversal of the whole Western Musical experience: from Baroque to Jazz, really.
Turning the page
The intelligence of this music lies within the composition itself; the details on the page. Sadly, when its performed, or listened to, all these intricacies go by too damn fast.
But the expression is revealed via the listening experience. Both J.S. Bach and Béla Bartók were romantics in the true sense of the word, so the heart of these works are, indeed, accessible for all. And this ‘musical experience’ gets richer with every listen. May you find these works stimulating, invigorating, and fill you with a sense of belonging in this world.