Concerto for Orchestra
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, percussion, 2 harps, violins, violas, cellos, basses
II. Giuoco delle coppie
IV. Intermezzo interrotto
First performance: December 1, 1944, Boston, Massachusetts. Boston Symphony Orchestra, cond. Serge Koussevitzky.
As a child, Béla Bartók showed definite signs of becoming a piano prodigy and was encouraged by his parents to follow the path of a performer rather than of a composer. He did enjoy composition, though, and produced nearly fifty works by 1899, when he began a serious study of theory and composition at the Liszt Academy in Budapest. As his style matured, he gravitated toward nationalistic music. For a young Hungarian, this meant making use of the artificial Hungarian “flavorings” used by Liszt and Brahms. There was a little else upon which to base a nationalistic music, because Hungary’s rich and varied musical heritage was virtually unknown to academic musicians, particularly those trained, as Bartók was, in the German tradition.
This unfortunate situation changed in 1905 when Bartók “discovered” Hungarian folk music and spent the next eight years collecting and systematically cataloging it with the help of Zoltán Kodály. In doing so, he discovered a music rich with the inflections of the Hungarian language. The melodies often made use of ancient church modes, and the rhythms were highly irregular. All of his compositions written after this period of discovery show the unmistakable influence of folk music. They became increasingly personal and complex, and these traits made it difficult for Bartók to gain public acceptance. During the period between the World Wars, he was greatly respected as an ethnomusicologist but began to suffer fiscal problems due to the infrequency of performances of his works.
In 1940, Bartók and his family moved to New York for political reasons. There they suffered serious financial problems, which were further complicated by the effects of Bartók’s undiagnosed leukemia. Few musicians knew of Bartók’s condition. Those who did attempted to help him financially, but never with the composer’s knowledge for fear of wounding his pride. In 1943, Bartók’s friends Joseph Szigeti and Fritz Reiner privately urged the conductor Serge Koussevitzky to visit Bartók’s hospital bed with a commission for an orchestral work designed to show off his Boston Symphony Orchestra. A reinvigorated Bartók accepted the challenge and, in a period of only two months, completed the Concerto for Orchestra.
When asked to explain his use of the word “concerto,” Bartók said that he meant that the individual sections of the orchestra were often treated in a “soloistic” manner. The first movement is in traditional sonata form, but with themes and rhythms strongly influenced by Hungarian folk music. Near the end, they are played backwards, forwards, and upside down. The second movement bears the subtitle Giucoco delle coppie (Game of the Couples) in the score and parts. However, the manuscript clearly labels it as Presentando de coppie (Presentation of Couples). In this movement, pairs of bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and muted trumpets each present their own melodies separated by fixed intervals. After a chorale by the remaining brasses, each pair returns—this theme with their melodies embellished by additional instruments.
The third movement brings back some of the first movement’s material in an impressionistic elegy equally as rich in the spirit of folk song. The following movement is a simple intermezzo with two alternating folk-like melodies. In the middle, however, there is a rude interruption which owes its existence to Bartók’s dislike of Shostakovich, whom he believed to be overrated. According to Bartók’s son, his father happened to hear a broadcast of the “Leningrad” Symphony while working on the intermezzo. He was moved to parody Shostakovich’s work by inserting an interruption by a clarinet playing a march tune from the symphony. The clarinet is, in turn, greeted by jeers from the trombones, a repetition of the theme in the style of a German band, and a final parody by the tuba. Bartók then completed the movement as if the interruption had never taken place.
The final movement begins with a brilliant horn call followed by a theme which is presented in the strings and then subjected to every imaginable contrapuntal device. A second theme by the trumpet later becomes the subject of a fugue, and all of the themes are brought together in a stunning finale dominated by a triumphant brass section. The premiere by the Boston Symphony in December, 1944, was an unqualified success. Fortunately, Bartók was able to attend and accept the acclaim for what would be his last and most popular work for orchestra.