Bartók Concerto for Orchestra

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Bartók Concerto for Orchestra Program Notes

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, one of the staples of 20th Century orchestral music, led to wide acceptance of Bartók’s music, following its premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra on December 1, 1944. The Concerto evokes the idea, first suggested by his friend and publisher Ralph Hawkes, of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, featuring sections of the orchestra in virtuosic displays.

Like a classically structured symphony (though Bartók eschewed the term), the first movement has a slow introduction, at times featuring flute, or trumpets. Its spirited allegro is alternated by a tranquillo episode, first introduced by solo oboe over drone-like strings. Another diversion is a brass fugato section, reminiscent of the antiphonal brass choirs of Giovanni Gabrieli, organist at Venice’s Basilica San Marco in the late 1500s, where the balconies and architecture inspired concerto style – quite the homage.

Bartók named the second movement “Introduction of the Pairs” or “Games of the Pairs.” With simple material, instrumental duos play over orchestral accompaniment, with a humorously off-beat manner. A brass chorale in the middle provides a legato contrast to this angular music. On its return, the original material replaces the pairs with trios.

The third movement, Elegia, revisits material from the first movement, in a style referred to by many Bartók writers as “Night Music,” after the fourth piece of his 1926 solo piano set, Out of Doors. Imbued with mystery, Night Music material has slow tempos, frequent imitation of nocturnal animals (birds, frogs, and cicadas), and tone clusters. Bartok called the Elegy a “lugubrious death-song,” a curiously rare phrase previously used by Renaissance Florentine ruler and philosopher Savonarola, in warning of civilization’s destruction – ideas no doubt on Bartók’s mind at the time. Savonarola was the subject of an oratorio another composer in Bartók’s orbit, Rezsö Sugár.

The Intermezzo Interroto is a brief 150 measures. Its outer melody sounds simple and folk-like (though its folk-like irregularity generates the movement’s 74 meter changes). The central section has invited much interpretation. The melody could be the march theme from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, performed in New York in 1942 and immediately popular. Some say Bartók parodies Shostakovich, yet Shostakovich was himself either parodying a Franz Lehar theme, revisiting a theme from his own opera Lady Macbeth, or both.

Beginning with a heroic horn call, the Finale is a rousing affirmation of life, its rhythms evoking the thrilling whirls of a rapid folk dance. Brilliant orchestration across the sections of the orchestra leads to a virtuosic string fugue, followed through to the point of exhaustion and a mysterious sul ponticello passage, where Bartók develops themes in inversion, before the final, rousing fugue theme and a fantastical coda.

As a young man, Bartók and his friend Zoltán Kodaly traveled through the villages of Hungary, recording folk dances and songs. Their research included the study of modes, the way half-steps or whole-steps are organized in scales. While most Western music from the Baroque period onward is written in Major or Minor modes (often associated with happy and sad moods, respectively), these ‘new’ modes can have a more ambiguous mood to Western ears. These Eastern modes were a successful and colorful alternative to challenges facing innovation in classical music following Wagner’s stretching of tonality’s limits (and Schoenberg calling for the abandonment of key-centered tonality).

Throughout the 1930s, Hungary’s government became increasingly aligned with the fascist governments of Italy and Germany. Fearing this, Bartok and his wife Ditta emigrated to the United States in October 1940, one month before Hungary would formally join the Axis. There, Bartók continued his ethnomusicological research (including an appointment at Columbia University and some lecturing at Harvard), and received some commissions including his fabulous trio, Contrasts, for Violin (Joseph Szigeti), Clarinet (Benny Goodman) and Piano (himself).

The Concerto for Orchestra would be his final completed work – he was in the early stages of leukemia when Koussevitzky visited his hospital room to commission the Concerto for Orchestra. Works completed later by colleagues, or his son Peter, include the Third Piano Concerto and the Viola Concerto.

Born: March 25, 1881, Sânnicolau Mare, Romania Died: September 26, 1945, New York, NY

Categories: Program Notes