Past and Future Music in Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion

Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion Sz. 110 is an historically significant work because it contains music of both the past and future as well as one of Bartók’s most original compositional styles, his Night Music Style. The Sonata looks back to the sonatas of Beethoven, particularly the Waldstein Sonata, while also giving inspiration for future derivative works by Boulez, Berio, and Crumb. This placement within a continuum of compositional development is especially interesting when one considers the tonality-shattering developments of the previous decades, where often violent rejections of past traditions became the compositional norm.

A quote from Bartók summarizes the desire amongst many twentieth century composers to break with the Romantic tradition: “ At the beginning of the twentieth century there was a turning point in the history of modern music. The excesses of the Romanticists began to be unbearable for many. There were composers who felt: ‘this road does not lead us anywhere; there is no other solution but a complete break with the nineteenth century.””(1) For Bartok, this meant both a return to earlier Classical forms, as is evidenced in the structure of his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, and an intense interest in folk elements.

Commissioned by the International Society for Contemporary Music’s Basel Chapter in 1937, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion was composed in Budapest during July and August of the same year. The work was premiered on January, 16, 1938 in Basel Switzerland in a performance featuring the composer and his wife, Ditta Pásztory-Bartók on piano. The Basel premier was a success, and lead to subsequent performances in London, Brussels, Luxembourg, and Budapest. The popularity of the work lead Bartók’s publisher to suggest a re-scoring of the work for orchestral accompaniment in 1940. (2)

The unusual scoring for two pianists and two percussionists was the result of Bartók’s belief that a single piano could not sufficiently balance the sharp attacks of the percussionists. Bartók came to this conclusion following the completion of his previous three orchestral works using piano and percussion. (3) The percussion scoring includes three timpani, xylophone, snare drum with snares, snare drum without snares, suspended cymbal, pair of cymbals, bass drum, triangle, and tam tam. In addition to this rather elaborate percussion set-up, Bartók indicates that each percussion instrument is to be played with specific implements to achieve subtle timbres. For example, the triangle is to be played with “the usual beater, with a thin wooden stick, and with a short, but rather heavy metal beater.” (4) This focus on fine timbral detail is in keeping with the attention Bartók paid to details of inflection and timbre when transcribing peasant folk songs throughout Central and Eastern Europe. As if to emphasize the importance of the percussion, the writing for the two piano parts most often avoids lyrical passages in favor of pointed, percussive gestures. As a result, the work often seems more a quartet for four percussion instruments. (5)

The overall layout of the work is in three movements, typical of a sonata. The length of the first movement, which is roughly twice as long as the subsequent movements, may seem unusual. This imbalance is one of several similarities between the Bartók Sonata and Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, Op. 53. Indeed both works have a similar duration and are laid out in a similar pattern with a lengthy first movement and a rapid finale. This seemingly superficial connection is bolstered by similarities between the melodic construction of the themes in the first movements. Both have principal themes on ‘C,’ as well as secondary themes emphasizing ‘E.’ The secondary themes even share a similar melodic shape, a descending scalar passage which changes direction midway. Both Beethoven and Bartók chose to begin their recapitulations on ‘A,’ as well. (6) These distinct similarities, combined with Bartók’s expressed sentiments desiring a break with Late Romantic conventions clearly place Bartók’s Sonata within the influence of Beethoven. Interestingly, Bartók performed Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata in his first public concert in 1892.

While there are many similarities with past traditions, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion is also a forward looking work. The first movement follows the expected sonata-allegro form, though here tonality is pushed beyond the typical convention of first theme followed by a second theme in a contrasting key. Indeed for a sonata to be effective in tonal harmony it must have conflicting tonal areas at the outset, (7) an element Bartók achieved by assigning his first theme to the tonal center of ‘C,’ and the second theme to the tonal center of ‘E.’ These tonal centers are largely defined by their initiating tones, as the octatonic scale or Forte set 8-28 is used frequently within these theme groups, making a strict tonal understanding more ambiguous. (8) The use of these post-tonal systems of organization allowed Bartók to depart from the expected tonal areas significantly while remaining within the formal framework of themes in contrasting tonal areas.

If the first movement of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion draws inspiration from Beethoven, the second movement utilizes a style completely original to the composer. This slow movement in ternary form exemplifies Bartók’s Night Music Style, where the sound and space of the nocturnal world is recreated through soft tone clusters and rapidly repeated tones against a shimmering backdrop of sound. This Night Music Style was first used in the fourth movement of Bartók’s Out of Doors Suite, and can be found in all of his works for piano and percussion. (9) It is perhaps not surprising that Bartók was in tune to the sounds of the natural world as he was well-known for transcribing minutia of folk melodies throughout Central and Eastern Europe. This night music style, in combination with the novel instrumentation of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion provided a foundation for several future works by composers as diverse  as Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, and George Crumb.

Composed in 1973, Luciano Berio’s Linea, for two pianos, marimba, and vibraphone makes use of similar piano writing to Bartók’s Sonata, in that for large portions of the work the pianists are playing in unison with the mallet percussion, achieving much the same effect of the percussion quartet in Bartók’s work. (10) These unison pairings also serve to create subtle timbral shifts, akin to those achieved through Bartók’s use of specific percussion implements.

George Crumb’s Music For A Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III), composed in 1974 is another work for two pianos and percussion that clearly draws inspiration from Bartók’s Sonata. In his written notes on the work, Crumb explains how Bartók first developed the multiple piano and percussion ensemble, and expresses his surprise that more composers did not contribute to the genre. (11) Crumb’s composition makes use of a much more extensive percussion setup, which takes Bartók’s attention to timbral detail to the extreme. Crumb calls for a large battery of standard percussion instruments, a selection of exotic instruments, and even requires the pianos to be amplified and prepared at times. Bartók’s Night Music Style can be heard in this work as well, which features movements with titles such as Nocturnal Sounds, and Music of the Starry Night. Crumb’s compositional technique of building from the “elaboration of tiny cells into a sort of mosaic design,” (12) is very much in the same vein as Bartók’s tone clusters and rapidly repeated tones, which make his Night Music Style recognizable.

In an expansion of an earlier work, Pierre Boulez composed Sur Incises from 1996 to 1998 for three pianos, three harps, and three percussionists playing both pitched and non-pitched instruments. In notes on the composition, Boulez relates his ensemble to Bartók’s work and explains how he used three pianos as a way to further what Bartók had done. (13) In this composition, Boulez calls for a number of unusual percussion instruments such as steel pan drums, again an emphasis fine timbral detail that echoes back to Bartók.

As has been evidenced, Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion occupies a unique and influential position in compositional history. The work contains both elements of tonal and post-tonal construction in an era where tonality was a divisive construct. It is clearly grounded in the formal structures of Beethoven’s sonatas, yet its unusual instrumentation, emphasis on timbre, and inclusion of the composer’s Night Music Style proved fertile ground for exploration by composers decades into the future. The weaving together of these seemingly disparate concepts is what makes this work so significant in the history of composition.


(1)  Bela Bartók, The Influence of Peasant Music on Modem Music, in Essays, ed. Benjamin Suchoff, (University of Nebraska Press: 1992) 340.
(2)  James M. Keller, Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 27-28.
(3)  The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., s.v. “Bartók, Béla,” by Malcolm Gillies.
(4) Bartók, Béla, Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Boosey & Hawkes: 1942.
(5) Keller, 28.
(6) Michael Russ, Bartók, Beethoven and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, in Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Vol. 137, No. 2,, accessed January 29th, 2020.
(7) Nicky Losseff, The Piano Concertos and Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, in The Cambridge Companion to Bartók, ed Amanda Bayley, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 120-121.
(8) Paul Wilson, The Music of Bela Bartók, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 155-156.
(9) Losseff, 125.
(10)  Yarn/Wire, accessed February 2, 2020,
(11) George Crumb, Music for a Summer Evening, in Profile of a Composer; George Crumb, ed. Don Gillespie, (New York: Edition Peters, 1986), 110.
(12) Crumb, 110.
(13)  Pierre Boulez: Sur Incises, accessed February 4, 2020,

These thoughts were put together in preparation for my master’s degree oral examinations at Ohio University, spring 2020.