Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Concerto for Orchestra

BORN: March 25, 1881. Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (which later became Sannicolau Mare, Rumania)
DIED: September 26, 1945. New York City

COMPOSED: Between August 15 and October 8, 1943. The work is dedicated to the memory of Natalie Koussevitzky, the conductor's wife

WORLD PREMIERE: December 1, 1944. Serge Koussevitzky conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—December 1949. Pierre Monteux. MOST RECENT—May 2015. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, side drum, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, 2 harps, and strings

DURATION: About 36 mins

What is a concerto? Most music lovers would agree that it is a work in which a soloist is pitted against the full orchestra in a sort of dramatic back-and-forth, with those entities operating sometimes in contrast and sometimes in consort. But the word “concerto” had a different implication when it was first applied to music, at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In those incipient days of the Baroque period, the term stayed close to its etymological roots—concertare, in Old Italian, means “to bring together.” “Concerto” described works whose individual lines, instrumental or vocal, were assembled into a harmonious whole. 

In that ancient context, concertos could end up being analogous to what later audiences would recognize as symphonies or choral works. But from the mid-eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries the “new” meaning of concerto reigned, referring to a work in which a whole is divided into two opposing or complementary parts. As the twentieth century progressed, composers began devising a new kind of concerto, the so-called “concerto for orchestra,” in which individual players or sections of the orchestra are given their sequential moments in the spotlight. Hindemith wrote what seems to be the first of these pieces in 1925, and in ensuing years “concertos for orchestra” were written by such distinguished figures as Goffredo Petrassi, Walter Piston, Zoltán Kodály, Michael Tippett, Ulysses Kay, Witold Lutosławski, Roger Sessions, Roberto Gerhard, and, most famously, Béla Bartók. The tradition remains very much alive today. During the last few decades the repertory of concertos for orchestra has been enriched by Karel Husa, Joan Tower, Richard Danielpour, Robin Holloway, Steven Stucky, and Jennifer Higdon.

Béla Bartók had been trained at the Budapest Academy of Music, had immersed himself in the traditional music of the Balkans (and of regions as distant as North Africa), and found liberation in the harmonies and orchestration of contemporary French composers. It has been rightly observed that while his distinguished colleague Kodály drew on folklore to develop a distinctly Hungarian “classical” style, Bartók used the same influences to transcend borders, to achieve a sort of universality.

There was a price to pay for this, and Bartók often complained of being under-appreciated by audiences and of experiencing financial troubles (this despite a degree of success as a touring concert pianist). He grew increasingly desperate as National Socialism overtook Central Europe in the 1930s, but he felt compelled to stay in Hungary to look after his adored mother. When she died, in 1939, Bartók wasted little time in preparing his exit, and in the fall of 1940 he and his family arrived in New York, where he would spend his five remaining years.

The fifty-nine-year-old Bartók felt depressed and isolated in his new surroundings. He lacked energy and was plagued by ill health, the first symptoms of the leukemia that would kill him. He gave some concerts and received a grant from Columbia University to carry out research on Yugoslav folk music, but he became convinced that his career as a composer was over. Others gave in less easily. His English publisher, Ralph Hawkes, suggested Bartók write a series of Brandenburg-like concertos for solo instruments and string orchestra, but nothing came of this until the summer of 1943. By that time, Columbia’s grant money had run out and Bartók was in such precarious health that he was confined to a hospital.

At the instigation of two of Bartók’s Hungarian friends, the conductor Fritz Reiner and the violinist Joseph Szigeti, Serge Koussevitzky—the conductor of the Boston Symphony and a great champion of contemporary music--dropped by the hospital to offer the composer a thousand-dollar commission for a new symphonic work. This was obviously an act of charity. Bartók’s weight had fallen to eighty-seven pounds, and he was all but bankrupt. Suspicious of handouts, Bartók refused on the grounds that he doubted he could deliver the piece. But Koussevitzky, without missing a beat, improvised the story that his foundation required him to give Bartók a check for half the amount in order to secure the commission—a risk they wanted to assume--and that the remaining half would wait until the piece was completed. Bartók accepted the plan and the much-needed check, and during the summer and early fall of 1943 managed to write the entire Concerto for Orchestra at a rural mountain getaway at Saranac Lake, in the north of New York City.

It is ironic that Koussevitzky should have been the instigator of this masterpiece, since he had not been a particular aficionado of Bartók’s music. The new work converted him completely. What Koussevitzky got for his money was a splendid showpiece for his orchestra—for many of the solo wind-players and percussionists, as well as for the ensemble as a whole. Bartók provided a comment to help the listener: “The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first moment and the lugubrious death-song of the third to the life-assertion of the last one.” These three movements are the “big” sections of the piece, with the second and fourth movements being more lightweight intermezzos.

THE MUSIC  Of the work’s name, Bartók commented: “The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat single orchestral instruments in a concertante or soloistic manner. The ‘virtuoso’ treatment appears, for instance, in the fugato sections of the development of the first movement (brass instruments), or in the perpetuum mobile-like passage of the principal theme in the last movement (strings), and especially in the second movement, in which pairs of instruments consecutively appear with brilliant passages.”

After its slow introduction, the first movement displays a tough sort of good humor (à la Hindemith), with opportunities to spotlight solo woodwinds and the brass section. Gioco delle coppie means “game of couples,” and Bartók plays the game in his first intermezzo by featuring various instrumental “couples”—first bassoons, then oboes, clarinets, flutes, and trumpets. “Thematically, the five sections have nothing in common,” Bartók insisted. A spacious chorale for the brasses and side drum provides contrast midway through.

Bartók was the master of what has come to be called “night music.” An unsettling example of this arrives with the Elegy, its mystery played out with prominent touches of low strings, high winds, and harp.

The oboe takes pride of place in the Interrupted Intermezzo. After a section for lushly scored strings, the oboe restates its theme. Then the interruption occurs—in the guise of a quotation from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, understood (rightly or wrongly) to depict the Siege of Leningrad in World War II. The music of Shostakovich was enjoying extreme popularity in the United States just then, certainly buoyed by the wartime political alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Seventh Symphony became practically a “war anthem” on American shores (as in Russia), and Bartók, who disliked Shostakovich’s music in general, grew increasingly annoyed by what he considered unfair adulation of the piece. Here, Bartók makes sure it comes across as rude and vulgar. Curiously, Bartók seems not to have been aware until the conductor Antal Doráti pointed it out to him that the tune was not original to Shostakovich, either, and that the Russian had swiped it from Franz Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow. Of this movement as a whole, Bartók commented, "The melody goes on its own quiet way when it's suddenly interrupted by a brutal band-music, which is derided, ridiculed by the orchestra. After the band has gone away, the melody resumes its waltz--only a little bit more sadly than before."

The Finale is, as Bartók put it, a perpetuum mobile, a whirlwind of energy that belies its composer's frailty. Bartók shows off all his skill as a technician, working an “intellectual” fugal passage into the proceedings, and brings everything to a brilliant end.

Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony premiered the new piece a little more than a year after it was completed. Against his doctors’ advice, Bartók attended the concert; the audience’s cheering would prove the highlight of his career. “It was worth the while,” he reported. “The performance was excellent! Koussevitzky is very enthusiastic about the piece, and says it is ‘the best orchestra piece of the last twenty-five years’ (including the works of his idol Shostakovich!).” Work on the Concerto for Orchestra served to revivify Bartók’s creative facility. In the little time that remained, he would go on to compose his Sonata for Solo Violin and to nearly bring his Piano Concerto No. 3 and his Viola Concerto to completion. He also found time to revisit his Concerto for Orchestra, lengthening the Finale (which he had considered too abrupt), and bringing this masterpiece into its final form.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (London)  |  Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA Living Stereo)  |  Iván Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra (Hungaroton)  |  George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony Classics)

Reading: Béla Bartók—The American Years, by Agatha Fassett (Dover)  |  Elliott Antokoletz’s analysis of the Concerto for Orchestra, in The Bartók Companion, edited by Malcolm Gillies (Amadeus)

(March 2017)