BÉLA BARTÓK: Concerto for Orchestra

Béla Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Transylvania (then part of Hungary but now absorbed into Romania), on March 25, 1881, and died in New York on September 26, 1945. The Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned in the spring of 1943 by Serge Koussevitzky through the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in memory of Natalie Koussevitzky. Bartók composed the work between August 15 and October 8, 1943; Koussevitzky led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the first performances on December 1 and 2, 1944. The Concerto for Orchestra is scored for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), three oboes (third doubling English horn), three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets (with a fourth trumpet marked ad lib.), three trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, bass drum, tam-tam, cymbals, triangle, two harps, and strings.

Early in the 1940s, with the War raging in Europe, Bartók immigrated to the United States, where he had a position doing research on recordings of eastern European folk songs housed at Columbia University. He had all but given up composition during the preceding years, depressed by the state of Europe and by his own financial insecurity. Bartók enjoyed his work with the folk materials at Columbia, but he was painfully aware that his position there was only temporary, and he kept casting around for lectureships, concerts, and other ways of earning a living.

Worse, he had begun to have a series of irregular high fevers that the doctors were unable to diagnose, but which turned out to be the first indication of leukemia. By early 1943 the state of his health and the fact that Americans showed little interest in his music brought him to a low point. He insisted that he never wanted to compose again. The medical men were unable to do much, yet powerful medicine that spring came not from a doctor, but rather from a conductor—Serge Koussevitzky.

Violinist Joseph Szigeti had told Koussevitzky of Bartók’s situation, warning him that the proud composer would not accept anything remotely smacking of charity. Koussevitzky therefore offered work: $1,000 to write a new orchestral piece with a guarantee of a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The commission was a tonic for the ailing composer; at once he was filled with ideas for a new composition, which he composed in just eight weeks—August 15 to October 8, 1943—while resting under medical supervision at a sanatorium at Saranac Lake in upstate New York. His wife Ditta wrote to Joseph Szigeti to tell him of the change in her husband: “One thing is sure: Béla’s ‘under no circumstances will I ever write a new work’ attitude has gone. It’s more than three years now.”

Béla and Ditta Bartók made the trip to Boston late in November 1944 to attend the premiere, as the composer reported to a friend a few weeks later:

We went there for the rehearsals and performances—after having obtained the grudgingly granted permission of my doctor for this trip. It was worth wile [sic], 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!).

For the first performance Bartók wrote a commentary printed in the orchestra’s program book, something he did only rarely. His summary of the spirit of the work was no doubt a response to his own feeling of recuperation as he composed it:

The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one. The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single instruments or instrumental groups in a concertant 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.

He paired the first and fifth movements, as well as the second and fourth, so that the overall structure is a symmetrical pattern balanced through the middle (this was a favorite design in his multi-movement works).

The Concerto opens with a mysterious introduction laying forth the essential motivic ideas: a theme built up of intervals of the fourth, answered by symmetrical contrary motion in seconds. These ideas become gradually more energetic until they explode in the vigorous principal theme in the strings, a tune that bears the imprint of Bartók’s musical physiognomy all over with its emphatic leaping fourths and its immediate inversion. It is a rich mine of melodic motives for future development. The solo trombone introduces a fanfare-like figure, again built of fourths, that will come to play an important role in the brass later on. A contrasting theme appears in the form of a gently rocking idea first heard in the oboe. Most of these materials make their first impression as pure and simple melodies, not as the source material for contrapuntal elaboration, but Bartók works out a wondrously rich concoction with all kinds of contrapuntal tricks, and the fact that this was possible is, of course, no accident; the composer planned it from the start in designing his themes.

The “Game of Pairs” that forms the second movement is simple but original in form, a chain-like sequence of folk-oriented melodies presented by five pairs of instruments, each pair playing in parallel motion at a different interval: the bassoons in sixths, then oboes in thirds, clarinets in sevenths, flutes in fifths, and trumpets in seconds. After a brass chorale in the middle of the movement, the entire sequence of tunes is repeated with more elaborate scoring.

The third movement, “Elegia”, is one of those expressive “night music” movements that Bartók delighted in. He described it as built of three themes appearing successively, framed “by a misty texture of rudimentary motifs.” The thematic ideas are closely related to those of the first movement, but they are treated here in a kind of expressive recitative of the type that Bartók called “parlando rubato,” a style that he found characteristic of much Hungarian music.

The “Intermezzo interrotto” (Interrupted Intermezzo) alternates two very different themes: a rather choppy one first heard in the oboe, then a flowing, lush, romantic one that is Bartók’s gift to the viola section. But after these ideas have been stated in an A-B-A pattern, there is a sudden interruption in the form of a vulgar, simple-minded tune that descends the scale in stepwise motion. This tune actually comes from the Seventh Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, which Bartók heard on a radio broadcast while working on the Concerto for Orchestra. According to his son Péter, he was so incensed with the theme’s ludicrous simplicity that he decided to work it into his new piece and burlesque it with nose-thumbing jibes in the form of cackling trills from the woodwinds, raspberries from the tuba and trombones, and chattering commentary from the strings. Soon, however, all settles back to normal with a final statement of the two main tunes.

The last movement begins with characteristic dance rhythms in an equally characteristic Bartókian perpetuo moto that rushes on and on, throwing off various motives that gradually solidify into themes, the most important of which appears in the trumpet and turns into a massive fugue, complicated and richly wrought, but building up naturally to a splendidly sonorous climax.

The overwhelming success of the Concerto for Orchestra marked the real beginning of Bartók’s fame with the broad concert audience. It remains without doubt his best-known and best-loved purely orchestral work, but over the years it has also provided a key by means of which many listeners have learned to love Bartók’s music, including the pieces that were once found to be too “difficult.” And for Bartók personally, composing this score proved to be just the tonic he needed. It had filled his summer 1943 “rest cure” with, if not rest, at least a cure for his compositional problems. In the fall Bartók and Ditta received a visit from their friend Agatha Fassett, who was astonished at the change in the composer over the summer, and when he showed her the completed score to the Concerto for Orchestra, he said to her (as she recalled later in her book on Bartók’s last years):

But what nobody could possibly see in this score is that through working on this concerto, I have discovered the wonder drug I needed to bring about my own cure. And like so many other discoveries, it just happened accidentally, and was only a by-product of what was of true importance to me, and I was almost unaware, at the time, that it was happening.

The despair that had caused him to give up composing had been overcome—even more so when the Concerto for Orchestra began its triumphal conquest of concert halls the following year. Bartók began accepting new commissions and undertaking further projects, though it was also clear that his health was not permanently improved. As he told a friend in Seattle a few weeks after the first performance of the Concerto for Orchestra: “You said in one of your letters that my recovering was a miracle. This is true only with some reservations: it was only a hemidemisemi-miracle.” Be that as it may, the months remaining to him produced the Sonata for Solo Violin, dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin, and the Third Piano Concerto, finished but for the last seventeen measures, as well as the unfinished Viola Concerto and sketches for a seventh string quartet. For a man who had declared a short time earlier that he never wanted to compose again, that may be miracle enough. —© Steven Ledbetter