74 pages, various sizes, autograph envelopes, 2 entries in the Székelys’ guestbook at Santpoort, including a musical quotation from the First Rhapsody for Violin and Piano, together with an autograph programme listing pieces "für London 4 Febr [1937?]", 18 letters on postcards with autograph address-panels, the first two letters in the hand of his wife Márta and signed by Bartók, an additional letter to Mientje supplied in typescript and photocopy, mainly Budapest, also Vienna, London, Solda (Bolzano), Basel, Zurich, Frankfurt, Ankara, Adana, and (finally) Forest Hills (NY), 19 January 1923 to 10 December 1940, damp-staining to one letter
This is an almost complete series of letters by Bartók to one of his closest friends and collaborators, the Hungarian violinist Zoltán Székely (1903-2001). Even individually, Bartók letters of this quality have only appeared infrequently, for example: some written to Erwin Stein about the publication of the Violin Concerto in 1939, and the Sixth String Quartet in 1941 (sale in these rooms, 22 May 1987, lot 572 and 1 December 1993, lot 302). Of letters by other twentieth-century composers, only the one hundred and fifty letters (1923-1931) by Shostakovich, sold in these rooms, 6 December 1991, lot 184 (£65,000), can be regarded as comparable, although the content was arguably more of biographical than musical interest.
The present series gives a unparalleled opportunity to acquire letters offering an insight into the collaboration between a great composer and a great performer. It covers the whole period of Bartók’s work with Székely in Europe, from two years after their first meeting in 1921 until 1940, when World War II and Bartók’s emigration to New York brought an end to the correspondence. The letters were published in English by Claude Kenneson, who omits two postcards (1932 and 1934) and presents sixteen others incomplete, discarding many long passages dealing with confidential financial matters.
The second half of this correspondence is largely devoted to one of Bartók greatest works, the Second Violin Concerto BB 117, which he composed at Székely’s request in 1937 and 1938. There are musical examples revealing his progress on the composition, and a number of lists of alterations and corrections. Back in the 1920s, Székely had asked Bartók about the First Concerto BB 48a (written for Steffi Geyer in 1907-1908), but he had refused to allow its performance or even discuss the work. The first mention of the Second Concerto comes in October 1936 (Letter 25), in which Bartók responds positively to Székely’s request for such a piece. Only in the spring of 1937 is the matter dealt with in depth: the length of the proposed work, whether it should be in variation form, Bartók’s draft of a seven-paragraph contract between the two men, mainly concerning Székely’s period of exclusivity, the negotiations with Universal-Edition in Vienna, interrupted by Bartók’s breach with the firm in 1938 and his refusal to deal with ”Germans” ever again.
Besides prompting its composition, it is known that Székely had considerable influence on the work, including the ending, in which Bartók accepted the violinist’s recommendation that the soloist play during the final passages. Here, the composer seeks his advice and suggestions regarding the articulation and bowing (Letter 38). Bartók regularly consulted his violinists on practical matters, including requesting copies of difficult passages annotated with their markings. Later Bartók sent Székely a list of detailed instructions on the copying of the parts, and marking errors in the parts (Letter 41) and a final correction-list appended to Letter 44 in 1939. Székely premiered the Second Concerto in Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Willem Mengelberg on 23 March 1939, but Bartók was giving a concert in Budapest that day and in fact never heard Székely play the piece he had written for him (he first heard it only in 1943, at Carnegie Hall).
“...Neither while I am alive nor after my death do I want any German publisher to have any of my work even if it means that no work of mine will ever be published again. This is now what is fixed and final. I was diligent: the score for the first movement is ready, the third movement in sketches (with the exception of the coda that was planned to be short also, by the way) is also ready, five pages of it are already orchestrated. I think the third movement turned out very well, actually as free variation of the first (thus I got the best of you, I wrote variations after all), it is brilliant, effective, with some new things in it...I would need your counter suggestions concerning articulation, etc., after all that is why I gave you the piano reduction so that you could mark in your recommendations (slurs, bowings, etc… Thus you should now send me the piano score in a hurry with your notes, so that I can enter the slur markings in the score…” (14 September 1938, translation)
Székely had studied violin with Hubay and composition with Kodály, and began to play recitals with Bartók, twenty-two years his senior, in 1921. Székely moved to Nijmegen in 1922 and married a Dutch girl Mientje Everts in 1926; Bartók visited them frequently there and in Santpoort, where Székely named his house "The Rhapsody", after the violin piece that Bartók had composed for him in 1928 (see previous lot). In 1925, Székely arranged Bartók’s Rumanian Folk Dances BB 68 (1915) for violin and piano, one of the few arrangements of his works that Bartók personally approved; he took it into his repertory and recorded it with Josef Szigeti in 1930. From 1935 until 1972, Székely was the leader of the Hungarian String Quartet, which gave Bartók concerns that he would not be free to exploit his agreed period of exclusivity with the Violin Concerto. These two great Hungarian musicians did not see each other after 1938. Székely was for two years the leader of Mengelberg’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, until that conductor’s links with the Nazis made it impossible for him to continue. He and his quartet gave many clandestine concerts and lessons in Holland, but performed in public only after the war ended. In 1948 they toured the USA, but by that time Bartók had died. In 1950, they moved to Los Angeles, becoming Quartet in Residence at the University of Southern California.
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