Béla Bartók's 44 Duets for Two Violins: Art Music for Teaching

December 23, 2010, 9:55 PM ·

I love to play duets with my students.

A discussion thread earlier this week, Should Teacher Play During Lesson? has me thinking about the subject. I do believe strongly in the power of playing together, and in the occasional demonstration, when talking is not getting the point across.


Some of the most cleverly composed yet playable violin duets on the planet are the 44 Duets by Béla Bartók. A pair of sisters, Angela and Jennifer Chun, recently released a recording of the duets, downloadable on iTunes or on Amazon.

These duets – short little works of genius – are featured prominently in The Doflein Method, a five-volume set of books that I highly recommend for violin students (and teachers), particularly Book 3, which helps greatly in solidifying second, third and half positions.

In fact, Bartók wrote these duets specifically at the request of Erich Doflein, who wanted to include examples of then-contemporary composers in his books, which were first published in the early 1930s. One of my colleagues from Europe told me that the duets, which are usually sequenced from easy to difficult, were actually written in the reverse: Bartók kept submitting his duets to Doflein, who would pronounce them too difficult for the beginner, "Easier!" he kept saying, until he had what he needed. Nonetheless, most of them appear in Books 1 and 2.

Doflein went to the trouble of commissioning duets from living composers because he wished to combine technical study with musical and stylistic study. Erich and Elma Doflein express this intention beautifully in their introduction to the books: "This is training, but not as on the athletic field – it is rather a journey through many lands of music, and the music of many lands....The music of our own time was also to be represented. Distinguished composers declared their readiness to cooperate and to provide examples of their art for the single stages of the course. We owe to Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Carl Orff, Matyas Seiber and other composers many pieces and studies which form an important component part..."

The Dofleins had some seriously talented collaborators, here!

These pieces are written by master composers, written specifically for two violins, not arranged from some other instrumentation. They stand whole, tiny little masterpieces to train the student. The Dofleins interspersed these pieces with music written by Mozart, by Baroque composers – even a few non-metered chants.

I delight in a student's first encounter with a Bartók or Hindemith duet, and the opportunity that it affords me to speak about the period of time and its music. Very often the piece sounds very "normal" and innocuous when the student is learning his or her part over the course of the week -- but add the second voice at the lesson, and it's a whole new story. "It sounds different, doesn't it? A little dark, maybe a little depressed," is how the conversation often goes. I like to hear their ideas about it. I explain to them that these pieces were written during an actual Depression, between two World Wars, when music took this turn for a while to the atonal. You can argue with me here, that maybe I should talk about Bartok's interest in folk music. But what tends to strike the student is the strange tonality and asymmetrical rhythms, which they hear neither in traditional classical music, nor in the music that they get from Lady Gaga and iTunes.

That said, I do wish there were a modern-day Erich Doflein to leverage the efforts of some of the great composers of today – the 21st century – to write something to train young fingers, ears and minds, something a young violinist can play in the company of his or her teacher.

I'm not a composer, but as a writer, I do know that the most difficult piece to write is the short one – to put a whole world of an idea through a prism and make it understandable to the newcomer, the youngster, the student. Who would like to write the short, modern violin duets for beginners? Send them to me, I'll put them in order and make the book.






December 24, 2010 at 10:42 AM ·

Thank you for this lucid tribute to the little pieces written by some great composers. As for Bartók's small gems, I've got the book with the first half in my music collection and got introduced to some of the more difficult ones (which were composed first, with Doflein keeping at Bartók's heels with repeated requests for easier works) by my violin teacher.

While never truly atonal (in the sense of "grating on the ear"), they sure are outlandish, tricky, unconventional and unusual - i.e. very worth while to study, play and hear. My teacher loves out-of-the-ordinary rhythms - I find them very hard to learn, but once I'm into the groove, they're so much fun to play. It was a hard row to hoe to get those short pieces down pat, but afterwards I felt like after a cold shower: it's dreadful to begin with, but it's healthy and once you've done it, you feel that special inner glow.

One of my favorite pieces of this collection is the one with the two "b"s - but not the usual combination of B flat and E flat - in fact, there's an editor's note that this is not a typo but really meant this way by the composer. Surely great material to keep you on your sight-reading-toes. Bartók's little duos are indeed an ideal teaching tool in that they have lots of interesting technical material - but at they same time they are real music, not just an etude and therefore will never get boring.

Merry Christmas and a Happy Violinistic New Year.

December 24, 2010 at 12:47 PM ·

A lot of the strangeness of the music (meter, harmony) is in fact from the folk influence.  If you can find a few of the recordings that Bartok made of European and African music-- not the sanitized Gypsy music-- that may open ears a bit.

One time, I was in an orchestra that performed a Bartok concerto with George Sandor, one of Bartok's last pupils.  He talked a bit about the style, saying that the music needed to have the freedom of speech.  So find groups of notes, and play them as though they were words.  Of course, Magyar always accents the first syllable ("BARtok," "SOLti," "KOdaly," "SANDor"), so don't forget that aspect.  

As far as tonality, Sandor said that far from being atonal, Bartok's music was very tonal.   So much so that he threw in extra notes over the chords, like paprika.

December 24, 2010 at 03:00 PM ·

 Oh, what a great story/post! My teacher has me using Doflein 2 (in conjunction with 3 other books - I like variety) and a few months back we did one of those Bartok and I just loved it. Felt like we were playing "real" music. I had no idea Doflein had commissioned a lot of those works in his books.

Can't wait to bring a copy of this blog into my teacher and share the info with her. 

December 24, 2010 at 03:12 PM ·

 Laurie - now I'm interested in that Bartok duet book. Do you know if the easier ones merely duplicate what's already in the Doflein? Wouldn't want to buy it just to duplicate what I already have, but it looks like a great collection that would be skill-appropriate for many years to come.

December 24, 2010 at 04:57 PM ·

My teacher introduced me to the Bartok 44 during my second year with her, when she produced one to sight-read at the end of the lesson. I was hooked.  She is very much into Easter European folk music and has recently been getting me used to the real excitement of playing in 11/16 and similar, which aren't all that common in my staple diet of the Suzuki syllabus :-) 

December 24, 2010 at 05:05 PM ·

From Szekely and Bartok: The Story of a Friendship, by Claude Kenneson, Szekely relates on page 139:

"A funny little episode which shows Bartok's thoroughness occurred during the first evening [February 1932] of this visit when he came into the living room with his 44 Duos for Two Violins- primarily an educational work, but one full of artistic beauty.  This work was not composed in one short period, but over a length of time.  Now it was finished and he wanted to submit it to his editor.  Helping him with the sorting, I was puzzled about the order in which to put the first five pieces intended for beginners because they had to be organized in the correct sequence from the easiest to the most difficult.

As I thought about this, Bartok interrupted me suddenly and with twinkling eyes made me the following proposition:  "I have an idea," he said.  "Let us pretend we are two beginners!  Hand me a violin and I assure you that I will sound like a beginner.  But you, a professional, have to take a handicap which should put your violin playing back to the stage of a child.  Let us play the first five duos, but we will make a slight adjustment.  Why don't you reverse your bow and violin.  Hold your violin with your right hand and bow it with your left.  That little trick may put us on even terms."

Now this is a remarkable feeling if you have never done it before, but somehow you still have the reflex and some feeling for playing.  We played the duos in this way and succeeded in finding the correct sequence."



December 24, 2010 at 05:19 PM · Check out "What's New" compiled by Mimi Zweig and Rebecca Henry, published by One World Strings. They're taking the concept right up to modern-day contemporary and some really great stuff.

December 27, 2010 at 03:19 PM ·

I find it veyr important that teachers play with their student during lesson, both to demonstrate and to tcah. Some things are easier to learn visually. But unfortunetly I must sat I loathed the Doflein books, particularly book 3 but I did like the 4th book.

December 28, 2010 at 12:41 AM ·

Oh dear, loathed it! Well you are entitled to....but, I must share a story from my early days of teaching. One of my students, then a high-school junior, finished Book 3, then turned to me and said, "Mrs. Niles, that was the BEST book, I know third position so well now!" 

I also find that they incorporate a lot of intonation work as well. But as you can see, I'm a big fan of these books!

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