The two violin rhapsodies occupy a very special place among Bartók's works based on folk music. For one thing, they are the longest such works in the composer's catalogue; moreover, Bartók did not limit himself to arranging the melodies themselves but incorporated their performance style in the compositions, too. The melodies he used were fiddle tunes to begin with, and Bartók insisted that Joseph Szigeti, the dedicatee of the First Rhapsody, listen to the original field recordings before the premiere. Zoltán Székely, for whom the Second Rhapsody was written, was familiar with the village performances as well.
The stylistic differences between the two rhapsodies have to do with the personalities and artistic temperaments of Bartók's two violinist friends. Székely, the younger man, was a composer himself and an artist with more contemporary sensibilities than Szigeti, who in the 1920s was already a world-renowned champion of the classical violin literature. Accordingly, the First Rhapsody is smoother and more popular in tone, while the Second is wilder, more passionate, and takes greater artistic risks.
Both rhapsodies employ the slow-fast (lassú–friss) pattern inherited from 19th-century verbunkos music and the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Liszt. The slow sections use forms with recapitulations (ABA or rondo), while the fast movements consist of open sequences of dance tunes (even though in the first version of Rhapsody No. 1, the beginning of the opening Lassú returns.)
With two exceptions, the melodic material is Romanian in origin. The slow section of Rhapsody No. 1 contains a Hungarian melody (known as the %u201CLament of Árvátfalva”), and the fast section of No. 2 includes a Ruthenian dance from the Carpathian mountains.
Apparently, the compositional work did not come easily to Bartók. There is an unusually large number of versions – some of them variants rejected in the course of the composition, others retained in the published score as performance choices. (Bartók made revisions to the Second Rhapsody as late as 1944.) In addition to these textual variants, each work exists in different scorings: for violin and piano and for violin an orchestra. Bartók arranged the First Rhapsody for the cello as well.
The orchestral score of the First Rhapsody contains a part for the cimbalom, the Hungarian hammered dulcimer. This may have given Bartók the idea to improvise cimbalom-like passages on the piano, when he played the work with Szigeti at the Library of Congress in 1940. (The recording of this recital is widely available.)
As he was orchestrating Rhapsody No. 2, Bartók gave certain melodic fragments to the orchestra that had originally been played by the solo violin. He must have felt that these fragments did not sound well on the piano; in the orchestral version he was able to keep the string sound while giving his soloist a brief moment to rest. One of the unforgettable moments in this work – and a wonderful combination of instrumental colours – occurs in the passage where Bartók replaced the original piano clusters by harp glissandos, fast runs in the orchestral piano, and delicate string tremolos.