Béla Victor János Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania, on March 25, 1881, and died in New York City on September 26, 1945. He worked on his Third Piano Concerto during the summer of 1945. According to the preface to the published score, “he was able to finish the score with the exception of the last seventeen bars, which he noted in a kind of musical shorthand. These last seventeen bars were deciphered and scored by his friend and pupil Tibor Serly. Only a few expression marks and tempo indications, and no metronome marks, were found in Bartók's score. . . . In order to give a complete picture of the work, such markings as were deemed necessary have been added by Tibor Serly; by Eugene Ormandy, who conducted the first performance; by Louis Kentner; and by Erwin Stein.” György Sándor gave the first performance with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on February 8, 1946. Grant Johannesen was the soloist at the first San Francisco Symphony performances in April 1956; Enrique Jordá conducted. The most recent performances here were given in February 2008; Hélène Grimaud was soloist, and Ingo Metzmacher conducted. The orchestra is made up of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, xylophone, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-two minutes.
Bartók was a superb pianist whose first and last compositions were for his own instrument—a waltz he wrote as a boy of nine and the concerto he was struggling to complete for his wife and former pupil, Ditta Pásztory, as he lay dying of polycythemia in New York's West Side Hospital. His father, Béla Bartók, Sr., was an able and versatile amateur musician; his mother, Paula Voit, who was widowed young, supported herself most of her life by giving piano lessons, and it was from her that he had his first instruction. That was on his fifth birthday, though by then he was already an old hand at picking out folk songs with one finger.
Another five years and it was evident that his case was serious. On May 1, 1892—he had just turned eleven—Bartók made his public debut as pianist and composer, offering his audience the first movement of Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata as well as his own A Duna folyása (The Course of the Danube). As a young man he studied in Budapest with István Thomán, who had been a pupil of Liszt. In Thomán Bartók found a superb teacher, something like a surrogate father, a friend, and the generous owner of an ample library. It was from Thomán that Bartók derived the ethical stance and the uncompromising probity that informed his entire musical life.
In 1902, Bartók encountered Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, which shocked him into an awareness of his own possibilities as a composer. Bartók's String Quartet No. 1 was introduced in 1910, and over the next few years Europe's major cities came to know the Quartet No. 2, the ballet The Wooden Prince, the opera Bluebeard's Castle, the Études for piano, and the two violin sonatas. With the premiere of the Dance Suite in Budapest in 1923 he had his first huge success.
By temperament and conviction Bartók was an ardent democrat. He protested Fascist attacks on Toscanini in 1931, refused to play in Germany after Hitler came to power, forbade broadcasts of his music in Germany and Italy, and, as soon as the death of his aged mother in December 1939 left him emotionally free to do so, he emigrated to the United States, arriving here in October 1940.
The five American years were a wretched time of bad health, economic hardship, cultural dislocation, and small artistic satisfaction. Few conductors would touch his music—the notable exception was his former pupil Frigyes (by then Fritz) Reiner, conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony—and there were virtually no engagements for himself and Ditta as pianists. For a couple of years he stopped composing and worked primarily at his ethnomusicological studies, though these too brought him disappointment when it proved financially not feasible to publish his transcriptions of Rumanian and Turkish folk songs. His penchant toward self‑absorption increased and he became bitter. The last two years brought some rays of light and a renewal of creative energies as some important musicians began to step forward with commissions—Serge Koussevitzky, who had been spurred on by Reiner and Szigeti, for whom Bartók wrote the Concerto for Orchestra; Yehudi Menuhin, for whom he wrote a sonata for unaccompanied violin; and William Primrose, for whom he began a viola concerto. The last piano concerto, for whose sake he delayed completion of the Viola Concerto, was uncommissioned. It was to have been a surprise for Ditta.
Bartók's first two piano concertos get off to aggressive starts. The Third begins gently, with the piano unwinding a ruminating melody over a quiet accompaniment. Here, writing not for a public eminence like Koussevitzky or Menuhin, Bartók allows his fantasy to travel back to Hungary with unabashed nostalgia. There is contrasting material of lighter weight, a brief development, a recapitulation more regular than any he had written in Budapest, and a magical coda in which the music dissolves in a touching exchange between flute and piano.
In 1825, Beethoven had celebrated recovery from illness in the "Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to the Deity" that forms the slow movement of his A minor Quartet, Opus 132. Bartók’s own illness was in modest remission. His spirits were cheered by the end of the war, by the news that his son Béla and his sister and their families were safe, that his oldest friend and colleague, Zoltán Kodály, was well, and that his younger son, Peter, was discharged from the United States Navy. He was ready to sing his own hymn, closely modeled on Beethoven's. The piano has the chorale, and the strings provide the connecting tissue.
For contrast, Bartók returns for the last time to one of his most personal genres, a restlessly buzzing, twittering, chattering, chirruping night music. He had written the first of those nineteen years before in Out of Doors. Now the birds are American—the Baltimore oriole and the various warblers whose songs Bartók had notated the previous spring in Asheville, North Carolina, where he had gone to work on the sonata for Menuhin and in search of health. The chorale returns in one of Bartók's most beautifully fresh reprises, the song now in the orchestra and the crescendo of rhapsodic commentary in the piano.
The finale is cheerily fugal and generously virtuosic. To help speed the work for his father, Peter Bartók had ruled the barlines on the manuscript paper. The last seventeen measures were still blank on September 26, but under the last double bar the composer had written vége: The End.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
Recordings: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos) | Hélène Grimaud with Pierre Boulez conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon) | Martha Argerich with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony (EMI Classics) | Géza Anda with Ferenc Fricsay and the Berlin Radio Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon Originals)
Reading: The Bartók Companion, edited by Malcolm Gillies (Amadeus) | The Cambridge Companion to Bartók, edited by Amanda Bayley (Cambridge University Press) | Bartók Remembered, edited by Malcolm Gillies (Norton) | Bartók and his World, edited by Peter Laki (Princeton)