Concerto for Orchestra

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Concerto for Orchestra

Béla Bartók
Born March 25, 1881, Sânnicolau Mare, Romania
Died September 26, 1945, New York City, NY

By Marianne Williams Tobias
The Marianne Williams Tobias Program Note Annotator Chair


The musical term “concerto” derives in part from the classical Latin verb concertare meaning to contend, to skirmish, to debate, or to dispute, combined with the Italian language meaning to arrange, to agree, or to get together. Both etymologies are evidenced when applied to music. The initial compositional format featured separate vocal choirs, extending the idea after a few years to instruments with a soloist or group of soloists, playing in alternation of two different forces. 

During the Baroque period, Italians took the lead in concerto development, especially popular and thriving in the Venetian school. Giovanni Gabrieli, in his Sacrae Symphoniae Iand Canzoni e Sonata, was one of the  pioneers in extending the idea to include not only voices but also instruments. As the form developed, more and more virtuosic parts were given to the soloist (or featured group) in a style called concertato or concertante. It was not until the late seventeenth century and eighteenth century that the term concerto specified a specific genre.

As centuries passed, a concerto became especially noted for displaying virtuosic abilities of a soloist. Thus the title “Concerto for Orchestra” can easily seem like a contradiction. However, the basic DNA of “contrast by independent forces” has been maintained. A concerto for orchestra preserves the concertante element by selecting individual sections, or maybe an individual of an orchestra, to serve momentarily into the solo spotlight .

In 1943, the Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók, wrote his iconic Concerto for Orchestra within the span of two months while visiting Saranac Lake in upstate New York. For the premiere, he wrote:

“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 orchestral instruments 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.”

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra crystallizes dominant features in his musical thought. Halsey Stevens has written, “In no other composer is there to be observed such an undeviating adherence to the same basic principles throughout an entire career. In the Concerto for Orchestra, one of his last and most stunning works, there are no new tendencies to be observed…only the confirmation and continuation of the creative directions demonstrated by the scores which preceded them.” The vibrant color and rhythmic intensity of this music is an amazing outcome from a mind and temperament which was basically retiring and modest. The power and stature of the work belies the physical weakness of the frail 87-pound composer who was eaten by cancer when he produced what was to become his most famous masterpiece.

The Concerto for Orchestra was secretly commissioned by two Hungarian-born friends, Szigeti and Reiner, who prevailed upon the flamboyant conductor Serge Koussevitsky to visit Bartók in a New York hospital and deliver the commission. Koussevitsky threw the commission down on the bedsheet, along with a $500 down payment, and coaxed the ailing composer back to work. Bartók revived his lagging spirits and began to write in August of 1943, completing the concerto in October.  Fate was kind, and he managed to attend the  successful premiere on December 1, 1944, in Boston. 

The first movement, titled Introduzione: Andante non troppo, opens with a slow passage based in the celli and basses combined with high responses in violins and winds. Gradually the music gains momentum, entering the rapid paced allegro-vivace section. Bartók described this section as constructed “in more or less regular sonata form.”  There is an energetic first theme, featuring mixed 3/8 and 2/8.  Then a second theme emerges from the solo oboe, singing over open fifths in the strings. The development is dazzling in Bartók’s innovative combinations of melodic ideas and contrapuntal techniques such as imitation and inversion.

The second movement is called Presentando le coppie. Bartók explained that “this movement consists of a chain of independent short sections by wind instruments, consecutively introduced in five pairs (bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and muted trumpets.)  Thematically the five sections have nothing in common. A kind of trio that is a short chorale for brass instruments and side drum follows after which the five sections are recapitulated into more elaborate instrumentation. ”The sections are clearly delineated by snare drum marking the cadence of each. Bassoons present their ideas in sixths, oboes in thirds, clarinets in sevenths, flutes in fifths, and muted trumpets in major seconds.

The third movement is titled Elegia. Continuing Bartók’s own words, “the structure of the third movement is also chain-like. The three themes appear successively. These constitute the core of the movement which is framed by a misty texture of rudimentary motifs. Most of the thematic material of this movement derives from the introduction to the first movement.”

The fourth movement is titled Intermezzo interrotto. Bartók explained, “The form of the fourth movement could be rendered by the letter symbols A-B-A-Interruption -B-A. “A” is an original theme and “B” is a rendering of the song “Hungary, Gracious, and Beautiful.” ”The Intermezzo interrotto is a parody of a march which the composer heard from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. 

The fifth movement, Pesante, is marked presto. A brief brass fanfare unleashes the strings into a wild perpetual motion piece. Folk dance rhythms and melodies burst from the rushing notes. An elaborate fugue in the middle section, announced by the trumpet, adds to the complexity and richness of the texture. The recapitulation then recalls the dance rhythms, and in the coda, the fugue subject re-appears. 

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, crystallizing dominant features in his musical thought, is one of the most remarkable works of the twentieth century. Although he was largely unappreciated during his lifetime, after his death in 1945, 48 performances of his music took place around the world within a few weeks of his passing. “Just four years after its (Concerto for Orchestra) premiere, Bartók’s orchestral music was more played in this country than that of Berlioz, Liszt, Dvorak, Mahler or Schubert….It was gratifying for Bartók to achieve recognition and respect, however, belatedly. It is tragic that he could not compose more of the music he had planned.” (Jonathan Kramer) The fact that one of the world’s greatest composers died a painful death in abject poverty—and almost unknown—in New York City is chilling commentary.

Béla Bartók, Zoltan Kodaly, and Ernst Dohnanyi were essential in bringing Hungarian music to world class stature in the twentieth century. All were scholars, as well as composers and musicians, and their collective efforts in exploring Hungarian folk music, codifying their musical research, and using their discoveries in composition generated a renaissance of  Hungarian music. 

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

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