Divertimento is one of the most significant works in Bartók’s life work. The date of its composition is exceptionally important: summertime in 1939. Some of Bartók’s nice letters addressed to his son, telling him how long ago he had been under so good conditions, could be preserved:
„I somehow feel like a musician in the old world, invited as a guest by his patron. I live alone in a proper peasant house equipped with the most-most modern conveniences.” Otherwise, let me add just in brackets, this may also have somewhat contributed to ending up in a slightly more smiling work than most probably originally imagined by Bartók. He objected to every and any name and title of the work for quite long. He only told his client that it would be a 20, max. 30-minute composition and that its genre would perhaps be concerto or something else. Finally, he decided for the title Divertimento.
This piece closes the series of big works from the ‘30s. The two key compositions dated later in Bartók’s life work (Concerto and Piano Concerto No. 3) were both written in America. So, practically, Bartók’s European era is closed with Divertimento. The ‘30s were a highly fertile period in Bartók’s life work: Cantata Profana, as a work of determinative spirituality starts the line. This is followed by Piano Concerto No. 2 which, in the range of concertos, is perhaps the most significant composition he wrote for himself; it is a kind of summation of his life work. String Quartet No. 5, similarly a masterpiece of key importance in his life work, is presumably a less known piece for this audience. Although it is somewhat difficult to digest, still, if you listened to it several times, an incredible world opens up before your eyes. Additionally, Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion is highly outstanding; Bartók even composed a version with orchestral accompaniment. So, these works are the musical products of the ‘30s, and this period is quasi crowned with Divertimento from 1939.
Before we get deep into the explanation of Divertimento, I would like to draw the attention of my actual audience and the lovers of Bartók’s works to the four intonations determining his life work.
Intonation is a terminology in aesthetics; it does not refer to the quality or tune of a tone. In the terminology of aesthetics for instance, one of the crucial issues is the notion of beauty which has a lot of definitions and can be considered a kind of intonation in the logic of several life works. The not nice or ugly can confront the nice as intonation. The formulation of divine and earthly thoughts can frequently be perceived in sacral works and is likewise construed as conflicting intonation. So, basically, intonation is the artist’s mechanism to take possession of the world and give it a personalized definition wherein an emotion, a thought or idea is depicted in a person’s figure or in any other specific form.
Likewise, Mozart is typically a composer who can the easiest be approached through the characteristic intonations of his life work. Mozart’s intonations are identified with his most important opera heroes who typically embody an emotion or idea, and regardless of listening to a piano concerto or a symphony, we can find the figures of Sarastro, Constanze or the Queen of the Night in it.
In the 19th century for instance, the three main characters in Goethe’s Faust embody the three most important intonations of the century, whether it be a desire for creation or the sense of mission in the case of Faust, the spirit of objection or sin itself in the case of Mephisto, or purity and salvation in the person of Margarete (Gretchen).
In Bartók’s works, just as for Mozart, the intonations decisively come from dramatic works. But, when talking about Bartók, these intonations are not linked to the characters in the works but to the emotions and characters associated with them. So, the specific intonation is not called Bluebeard or Mandarin or the Wooden Prince.
1. Intonation: The night
A key thought in the Bluebeards’ is embodied in the image of the lake of tears.
This image echoes in Bartók’s almost each work, though true, later as the image of overnight nature, and it almost always goes together with the definition of human loneliness.
2. Intonation: The grotesque
The notion of grotesque can be linked to The Wooden Prince where the unusual and the funniness of bizarre are just as present as one of humanity’s most important questions in the 20th century: the risk of the copy to gain consciousness. The humour of grotesque is also occasionally manifested in Bartók’s most dramatic and most grievous works, as man is capable of smile and laughter even in his greatest grief. But it can also be recognized in a part (suggesting an overshot mood) of the piano piece Slightly Tipsy.
Still, the grimness of grotesque can also be found in his life work in several instances, whether it be the Four Orchestral Pieces or Concerto where mere triviality turns into sudden brutality.
3. Intonation: The barbarian
The barbarian musical character from The Miraculous Mandarin is the third key thought in Bartók’s life work. This also has great many faces, whether it be the wild piano piece Allegro Barbaro
or the mechanic and here-and-there threatening knocking of the pieces composed around 1926. But we could also mention the recently cited moment in Concerto where as if a thought were taking off its mask and appearing behind us as its own evil opposite.
Each of the three thoughts and idealisms are inherent in several compositions in Bartók’s life work.
As regards the use of intonations, the philosophy of Goethe’s Faust can be traced in each of Bartók’s three stage works: Faust and Mephisto are equally us, our nights and days are us, the liberating and smashing joke is also us, just as the others’ barbarism and extraneity, as well as our loyalty to conventionality and to our traditions and our betrayal are similarly us. The Bluebeard is as a whole the night and the sizzling light and strength of the climax, the Wooden Prince equally reflects the schizophrenia of our indifference and enthusiasm, while the Mandarin harps on the key questions of modern civilization wherein the different from us is considered a barbarian, whereas we do not recognize the values of humanity in the other, on account of our barbarism vis-á-vis our own civilization.
4. Intonation: The idea of brotherhood of the nations
The internal contradictions of the above-listed three thoughts and intonations create the ars poetica-like fourth intonation in Bartók’s life work: the idea of brotherhood among the nations. This, for Bartók, is the concept of humaneness, love and tolerance, which he composes in a so-called folk-dance finale. The message from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 can easily be distinguished in it. But just as Beethoven’s universally-targeted cosmic message, so is Bartók’s thought likewise unaccomplishable. Still, this thought is amazingly rational and unquestionably true from another aspect.
Here in Eastern Europe we could more or less preserve our thousand-year-old culture (due to our slower embourgeoisement and long servitude), so if we compare our musical traditions, we can still recognize that it is truly no use going to war or having hatred because the common is manifold more in us than the different. Let me resort to some musical chauvinism: our music and our dances are the two most elementary non-verbal forms of our culture, the most authentic mirror of our traditions. Hungarian and Romanian can be illuded with each other’s music, not to mention that folk music was mostly played by Gypsies, so it automatically mixed up with a sort of Gypsy tradition. But I could also mention my experience in Israel. At the end of the concert where we performed with Israeli-Jewish and Arab musicians, I could only say one thing: that it is wholly useless for you to be in war, your music is wholly identical. Both professionals and amateurs can equally find differences, but if you step back a bit, the differences fade behind similarities.
This is exactly what Bartók discovered, since he perambulated the countries with ancient folklore from Upper Hungary to as far as Bessarabia.
Although Bartók did not achieve anything with his thought propagating the development of brotherhood among the nations, just as Beethoven proved inefficient with his ‘love hymn’ Symphony No. 9, still, his works ending with an inspiring and rousing folkdance finale are among the most optimistically concluded pieces of the 20th century. Let’s listen to Bartók’s most splendid folkdance finale from Concerto.
And now, let’s indulge ourselves in analysing the piece. Divertimento is a special title in Bartók’s life work, as the composer takes rigorous care of not inciting any expectation from the title of his pieces, after knowing the traditions behind the title.
In this context, the title Divertimento is of special importance, given that the genre of divertimento reveals a very strong musical tradition. It means amusement, or could even be construed as entertainment. I highly recommend Mozart’s divertimentos that, following the traditions of that age, are indistinguishable from his serenades or cassatios. Ten-minute and over 45-minute pieces are both listed among them. Divertimentos were somewhat rarer in the 20th century, and even if composed, the title was rather just a reference than expressly entertaining music. Therefore, Bartók’s choice of this title should be taken as symbolic importance, just as his voluntary and clear-cut message: whatever you think, “I meant the music for entertainment”.
Lo and behold! Bartók composed an indeed mainly entertaining piece. Or, to put it the other way round, I could hardly mention any of his pieces with so many entertaining thoughts, yet hastening to avoid any serious topics.
Here in this piece, Bartók puts a kind of simplicity in the forefront from every aspect. The piece comes with three movements, representing the simplest cyclic structure in music history.
I have many a time mentioned the difference between the symmetric and four-movement cyclic form in Bartók’s life work. The four movements reflect the logic of four lines, a remnant in European folkish art music, whereas three and five-movement pieces are built on strict symmetry. Three-movement compositions are almost exclusively concertos which essentially reflect a kind of symmetry even with the trinomial structure of the slow movement, likewise creating a quinary symmetry resembling the Concerto. Strangely enough, Divertimento does not meet any of the criteria in my interpretation; it is implicitly not dichotomous, though symmetry, a typical feature in Bartók’s life work, is not inherent either. Quite many analysts mention symmetry in connection with this piece, which I find a bit constrained. Divertimento is Bartók’s only symphonic piece: it is composed in the concerto form, however, this after all is not that surprising, given that the piece is actually a concerto grosso. Practically speaking, each part has a soloist, meaning that the leaders of both violin parts, just as the viola, cello and double bass parts play solo, highly consistently contradicting the tuttists.
Let’s now review the composition in the order of the movements.
Perhaps the first movement can the best suit entertainment, or at least the centuries-long tradition of divertimento. There is a three-times treble pulse characterizing the movement: “one and a two and a three”. There is no even more elevating pulse in music history. Double pulse always refers to man, whereas treble pulse expresses a certain kind of sacralization, actually due to the sense creating unstress. In treble pulse, the alternation of stressed and unstressed, a feature in double pulse, is complemented with a second unstressed beat, and this, even in minimal motion, incites the sense of rising to above the ground. This is why the treble-pulse, originally rigid and elegant dances in music history gradually turned into ecstatic dance culminating in waltz.
This three-times treble pulse characterizing the first movement of Divertimento is relatively rare in music history. Just imagine: I fly, I fly and, even thirdly, I fly. This as a matter of fact manifests a kind of super ecstatic airiness, also meaning that no ugly or sad music should be composed in nine eights. But then of course, the three-times triformity of the movement frequently shrinks to six eights or expands to twelve eights, meaning that this internal triformity is resettled in two-form logic.
So, Bartók guides us to extra light pulse; and the theme itself is elegant: it is a series of almost baroque gestures. But of course, no doubt, Bartók did not compose dance music; the melody is almost endless, yet with some beat changes. This is not surprising in the 20th century, still, the composer saves us of the labyrinth of asymmetric pulses.
The articulation of the theme can actually be considered regular: a period implies a question and an answer. Nevertheless, although the 22-beat length considerably exceeds the mostly 8-beat structure of traditional questions and answers, yet the thematic identity of the question and the answer, a general feature since the classic era, can help us in our orientation.
Just listen to the clattering accompaniment which unmistakably suggests our joy: here we hear dance music.
The form of the movement follows a structure most important in classical music: the sonata form, meaning that we start from a tonality and link it with a theme, a musical character (leading theme); but then from there we move into another tonality and if we are “lucky” enough, there we will find another theme and another musical character (secondary theme) will be in tune. But then there comes a section where we lose the stable sense of tonality (development). Finally, we return to the original tonality, and whatever has not been played in the original tonality will now return in the basic tonality (recapitulation).
To put it simple: we move from the basic tonality to another tonality where the first formal section ends, and the musical themes played in this tonality will have to be wholly played in the starting tonality of recapitulation. In Divertimento, only the secondary theme returns in its usual form, but not the leading theme; nevertheless, this is also a clear sonata form.
So, Bartók offers us a secondary theme which contrasts with the leading theme from several aspects, similar to secondary themes in classical music. In contrast with the almost endless enlacing leading theme, the secondary theme is built up of short gestures, what’s more, it is based on responses between the soloist and the whole orchestra. The secondary theme is almost of floating airiness, contrary to the slightly rustic dance style of the leading theme.
Airiness has yet another phenomenal trick here: the third part of the three-times three beat shrinks to two pulses, making the beat almost to leap. This one-and-a-two-and-a-three split-up of eight is an also popular tool in jazz.
Well, this is where the game ends, this is where pure happiness ends. We would not be in 1939 and the piece would not have been composed by Béla Bartók if the whole movement were only about elegant and graceful gestures.
As the musical material of the leading theme develops, it suddenly falls into the repetition of tones in vigorous, irregular rhythm. Tone repetition and rhythmic game with identical tones are not distant from Hungarian folk music, though after a while this theme gets frightening.
To incite further strange feelings, the leading theme disappears or, rather, just a single gesture can be heard, while the ascending energetic ti-ti-ta turns into a suddenly descending moan gesture; our joy has slipped by.
I think we can all easily feel that this is no more dance, no more playful. In romanticism we could already get accustomed to having totally different thoughts in post-theme development and focusing on musical ideas different from the themes heard before. The development of the theme (if this dramatic motif is considered such) does not at all want to cease. And what is even worse: it does not disappear in recapitulation, either.
Luckily enough, there is something happening in the coda to finally relieve the former tension.
What was this miraculous moment? There was a melody, definitely the variant of the leading theme, distinguishably resembling the folk song, a clear-cut pentatonic scale in the structure of its tonal system; and, when analysed more specifically, the pillar tones of the melody coincide with those of our peacock melody symbolizing our ancient national culture.
And then there we recognize the genuinely unbelievable: after all, we heard the tones of the leading theme almost from tone to tone; what’s more: the leading theme can be recognized, though with minor shifts in its rhythm. What the symbolic value of all this is? Whereas we could not recognize the inherent Hungarian nature of baroque enlacing music at the beginning of the piece, here, in the code Bartók lifts the curtain and points at the substance of his entire life work: Hungarian folk music is hidden behind each of his musical thoughts, even if through multiple transmissions.
This moment carries special importance, considering that in the first movement of his cyclic works Bartók has so far avoided any direct reference to folk music. Although the folk-music quotation relieved the dramatic character of the previous section, still, the first movement ends without the sense of completion. The scraps from the leading theme turn shorter and shorter. The dynamic pulse of the theme, just like the heart-beat, gradually slows down, and the last beat comes to a faulty end, following the logic of our musical expectations. As a matter of fact, we generally feel good if a movement ends by the first beat of the last bar. Ending at half is still more or less acceptable, but finishing at the third beat (in triple articulation) (one and a two and a’) is rather bad. There could only be a single even worse case: if ending is at and a three. All in all, the composer really does everything to feel the end of the movement unended. This gesture resembles the incompleteness and unresolved character of romantic first movements, elevating all expectations for the solution of the last theme.
Then, based on our understanding of Bartók’s life work, we expect some night music in the second movement.
What did we hear? Two repetitive tones in the smallest interval we would ever use. But then we could hear a slower motion where a tone could be reached by coming around its lower and upper chromatic tone. The chromatic scale always means pain in music. The lack of any direction in the chromatic scale and merely coming around a single tone are likewise discernible symbols in Bartók’s life work: this is flounder. The hunt music in The Miraculous Mandarin is a similarly typical flounder music.
Bartók’s piano piece Diary of a Fly was first played to the audience two years before the composition of Divertimento.
The flounder of the small fly in the spider-web can ring the bell of express analogy when we listen to Divertimento.
The first section, seemingly almost motionless in its movements, is unexpectedly followed by some tight-rhythm strong-gesture music. Based on the rhythm, one could definitely associate it with ‘verbunk’ music, the typical Hungarian urban folk music and dance of the 18th and 19th centuries. The melody reminds us of a Transdanubian scale
which sounds a simple Oriental scale for non-Hungarians, due to the augmented second between the sixth and seventh tone of the minor tonality. However, the two intervals after the identical tones of the verbunk rhythm could even be interpreted as two minor thirds in Bartók’s life work. The minor third similarly has a symbolic importance in Bartók’s oeuvre: in The Miraculous Mandarin the minor third is played several times in an especially exposed tone, in connection with the mandarin, and this is all integrated in the complicated barbarism symbolism of the piece. This minor third can be identified in quite many of Bartók’s works; and in the modified, final coda of Concerto, this same minor third is played as a quasi-warning gesture.
Additionally, the tempo of the music recalls a dead-march.
Afterwards, the definitely most ancient layer of Hungarian folk music, a funeral lament is played at the golden section point of the movement (as the third element of the four-part movement).
The chromatic floundering melody at the beginning of the movement expands into pentatonic scale, creating a grandiose climax as monumental ostinato. But what is ostinato? A stubbornly repetitive melody or motif. What makes ostinato effective? Identity. Which is one of the most popular pieces in music history? Ravel’s Bolero. What can the secret be? You go to a concert and you hear almost the same for 15 minutes, though it is getting louder and louder and you feel more and more keyed up. So, one of the strongest binding forces and most effective mechanisms is identity. How you react to this stubborn identity, whether you crow or rave about is another issue. It is very important for this type of identity to always go together with some augmentation. Still, you do not need to say something twenty times only to reach full uniformity.
In music history, there are plenty of examples showing the concomitance of augmentation and ostinato. In baroque music for instance, passacaglia is a very frequent form: a mostly simple melody is repeated in the bass, in similar ostinato form. If you listen to Crucifixus from Bach’s Mass in B minor, its process is pathetic, almost devastating. Here in this movement, Bach does not elevate the volume but induces the devastating experience of death in the correlations of harmony and tonality. Or we could also mention Respighi’s Pines of Rome (1924) where the grandiose augmentation of the last movement elevates us to the light. Not much later, the most famous augmentation of the century, Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony is composed in 1941. The starting point is a simple nursery rhyme whose demonic augmentation beyond its obstinate rhythm finally clearly turns into the symbol of ravages of war.
The flounder, this augmentation beyond the ostinato in Bartók’s Divertimento cannot be interpreted in any other way but a kind of fear, ominous foreboding. We know exactly how bright and fearful the summer of 1939 was for everyone. Just a few weeks and Hitler overruns Poland. Above the obstinate accompaniment of the ostinato, the melody resembles almost useless gestures, faltering and crying motifs which rise higher and higher and, in an ever-extending hysteric mood, develop into sob almost ending in squallery. No doubt, this is a Hungarian funeral melody. The tradition whereby a dead person was not necessarily sent off by the relatives but by the wailers of the community who could turn themselves in a rage was still known in the 20th century.
After this dramatic climax, the second movement does not evidently have a real ending.
In the third movement, Bartók is very friendly with the listener. If the sound of the night has already been in tune, if we have already felt the threat of barbarism, the relief of the folk-dance finale should not evidently be missing, and the fourth intonation, the grotesque might also come up. The third movement of Divertimento could be considered the antitype of the last movement of Concerto. This is indeed an absolute example or even antitype of the last movement in Concerto. Here again we face the same musical events as in the finale of Concerto. The movement here similarly starts with a fanfare gesture, and then stamping rhythm starts the real folk dance character of the movement. Or, to phrase it differently, this is dance-house melody, in today’s sense of the word.
Now again, the repetitions of tones (natural in folk music) set up for themselves; however, the dramatic tone repetitions of the first movement do not only die away but almost develop into turbulent feast.
Let me draw your attention to the smacking sound given by the double bass. This is a typical playing method for folk bass players who frequently smack the string and not necessary play tunes to accompany the really rompish dance music.
Just as in Concerto, the movement is also continued with a fugue-type section in Divertimento. When Bartók composes a fugue or a section starting as a fugue, it means an extraordinary moment in his art. The frequently referred hunt in Mandarin is in effect a fugue, too where the parts, as they chase each other, set up extraordinary expressiveness for the hunt. Similarly, the fugue appears in the moments of hunting in Cantata Profana. The fugue in the first movement of Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion is also connected to this in its mood and character. Then in Bartók’s late pieces, in character with centuries-long traditions, the fugue gradually becomes the indispensable tool of integrity, the most eloquent testimony of craftsmanship, or a kind of sacrifice on the altar of the Lord or eternity. That is how the starting fugue in Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta evolves into one of the most complicated fugues in music history, commensurate with Bach’s contrapunctus. In the frenzied finale of Concerto, Bartók composed a fugato suggesting chatter in a grotesque poultry-yard. Fugue or fugato are not missing from his last two finished pieces, Sonata for Solo Violin and Piano Concerto No. 3, either.
In Divertimento, we feel the same intention, even if, adjusted to the size of the piece, there we actually have a fugue-initiative only. Quite naturally, the composer selects a melody close to his own thematic thinking; then, from there he initiates a fugato and continues it immediately with a fugato written for the metaphrase of the theme.
The fugato, as we have heard, got stuck. We could hear the somewhat scattered cadence of a cello, followed by violin cadence and some simple accompaniment, just as usual among Gypsy musicians.
Bartók has some surprise for us in the recapitulation, too: the theme does not recapitulate in its original form, but its metaphrase does. So, this evidences that the leading theme is very good even if reversed.
And, what other ending could Bartók have given to the piece but a stretto which is an accelerated coda and which we have already seen in Concerto. The augmentation lasts almost up to uncontrollability. We can hear the leading theme in both directions, upward and downward at the same time; the entries practically interrupt one another – this is also a characteristic of stretto. Not only is the tempo but also the polyphonic texture faster; the successive entries of the themes also get condensed.
The stretto loses its dynamism before the end; and then strangely, hesitantly it gets stuck. This is followed by the episode so typical in Bartók’s life work. The fourth intonation in Bartók’s oeuvre, the grotesque is not missing in the piece, either. The closing scene of the piece makes an accurate reference to one of Bartók’s phenomenal piano pieces which he composed young: Slightly Tipsy. A tipsy old man similarly staggers in the finale of Divertimento; and the interact is followed by a coda that could not at all be called playful but rather puzzled, almost desperately repeating the melody of the leading theme, then falling apart.
Finally, the closing gesture is rather a conclusion than a solution.
 Divertimento was ordered by Paul Sacher, the leader of Basel Chamber Orchestra. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was also composed at his request.
 Goethe: Faust (drama; date of publication: 1832). A milestone in the history of European culture. The theme of the work originates from the medieval Renaissance world: the figure of the scholar and magician who pacts with the devil (doctor Faustus was a living person) was introduced in literature in the 16th century and became a travelling theme. Goethe’s hero is the antitype of modern man, the symbol of human pursuit of knowledge. Faust is trying to find the answer to the fundamental human matters of life and death; he is a philosopher re-capturing and re-interpreting the stations in the development of humanity. He wants to understand Allness, the meaning of life; he is looking for his destination but does not find a reassuring answer to his questions. Because of his failure, he makes a bargain with the devil: Mephisto gives him everything, and if Faust can find any moment he feels was worth living for, his soul will belong to Mephisto after his death. Mephisto takes Faust to the pub and rejuvenates him in the frames of the witches’ Sabbath. Then comes love, but Faust does not find the meaning of his life in it, either; he seduces, then leaves Margarete (Gretchen) who kills her new-born son in her desperation; then she is prisoned and pays penance for her deeds. In the second part, Mephisto leads Faust all through the key stations of history: he meets the outstanding figures from the history of culture. Finally, Faust recognizes that even an unfinished life can be happy, and man’s goal in life is always to find a new goal, because this serves progress and development. After his death, Margaret’s figure redeems his soul from eternal damnation.
 Bartók: Concerto – 5th movement
 Cassazione: street music. Divertimento, serenade or cassatio were as a matter of fact the rock music of the 17th century. They were composed for balls, outdoor social events or overnight revelries; so, they were applied music, just as the dance music of the Renaissance and the Baroque. This was the paradise era when “classical” and “entertaining” pieces were stilled taken to paper with the same composer’s pen.
 The difference between concerto grosso and concerto is that one person and a small group oppose the whole orchestra in concerto and concerto grosso, respectively.
 In musical studies, the sonata form is generally taught to be a trinomial form. This as a matter of fact is not unnecessarily true in this form. The sonata form is often made up of two quasi-symmetric parts (1. part: leading theme, secondary theme; 2. part: development, recapitulation). Still, if development is so extensive that it disrupts the balance of the binomial structure, it may incite the sensation of triformity.
 Peacock melody:
 Transdanubian scale: minor scale, with floating augmented second between the 6th and 7th tones (la –ti –do –re – mi – fa – si – la)