I. Comodo II. Allegro scherzando III. Andante IV. Comodo
It was exactly 100 years ago that Bartók completed his Second Suite, which became a major watershed in his output. The folklike pentatonic theme of the last movement was a real breakthrough – this melodic style appears here for the first time in Bartók's music, as a direct result of his first ethnomusicological field trips. The first three movements of the suite were written three years earlier; the fact that Bartók was unable to find the right conclusion for so long shows just how deep an artistic crisis the discovery of peasant music enabled him to overcome.
The crisis was caused by Bartók's growing dissatisfaction with the musical idiom available to him, which was derived partly from such Romantic models as Brahms, Liszt or Richard Strauss and partly from Hungarian popular song (magyar nóta). In fact, Bartók transcended this legacy even in the first three movements, enriching it by many personal traits, though it was only in the last movement that he found the new source that would nourish his music for the rest of his life.
The first movement remains entirely within the stylistic boundaries of the Romantic serenade. Yet there is at least one element that would stay with Bartók for years: the harp chords opening the piece reappear in the Violin Concerto three decades later. The second movement opens with a theme reminiscent of the nóta tradition, but in the course of its development, Bartók takes some definite steps towards establishing his characteristic “grotesque” manner. The most original portion of the movement is the grandiose fugue that occupies the middle. Here Bartók's chromatic style appears fully formed; in addition, classical and folklike elements are fused in a most personal fashion. A stormy climax is followed by a recapitulation, and – after a brief, slow interlude – the fugue theme is invoked by a solitary solo violin, with frequent interruptions and broad glissandos (slides) filling in the large intervallic leaps. When Bartók arranged the Second Suite for two pianos in 1943, he gave this movement the title “Allegro diabolico,” possibly because of the connections with the “Mephisto” fugue from Liszt's Faust Symphony.
In 1909, Bartók conducted this movement at a concert in Berlin; this was the only time in his life that he stood on the conductor's podium.
The third movement opens with an extensive bass clarinet solo, which makes reference both to the English horn solo from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and to the nóta compositions of Elemér Szentirmay. (In the two-piano version, Bartók called this movement “Scena della Puszta.”) The melody is reminiscent of music for the Hungarian tárogató (a wind instrument related to the clarinet). Further in the movement, several commentators detected traces of “impressionism,” which is noteworthy since Bartók had yet to hear Debussy's music at the time this movement was composed.
Despite the appearance of the new element of pentatonicism, the last movement also relates to the first through the use of the repeated harp chords in the accompaniment. As in the second movement, the development is intensely chromatic and leads to a dramatic climax, followed once again by a peaceful and introspective coda. Yet whereas in the second movement we were aroused from the Romantic dreams by a few energetic closing chords, this time the lyric mood is retained to the end. The suite concludes by a characteristic melodic turn derived from the newly-discovered treasure trove of peasant music.