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Bartok, Concerto for Orchestra in F minor, Sz. 116, BB. 123(c) Georg Szell, The Cleveland Orchestra

By June 22, 2022March 19th, 2023No Comments

I have a strange history with this piece. I had a radio show in college, and I remember playing a performance of the Concerto for Orchestra. I didn’t like it, and I hadn’t listened to the piece for about 40 years. Then I listened to Szell’s recording, and I thought that it was very beautiful. I’m posting it here. I hope that it doesn’t take you 40 years to hear what a wonderful piece it is.

Bartok and the Concerto for Orchestra

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 that 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.

Bartók spent years in the field with a primitive Edison cylinder machine meticulously recording and transcribing thousands of songs. His extensive writings are a major foundation of modern ethnomusicology. To further expose his findings, at first he published concert arrangements of folk music but soon they imbued his original compositions. His goal was both scientific – to preserve, classify and analyze folk material – as well as practical – to encourage performance and appreciation both in Hungary and throughout the world. As his fame spread, he traveled to explore and compare other folk traditions. From his experience, he came to believe that the most important music arose not from isolated cultures but from an intermingling of diverse influences. Ultimately he put theory into practice: although firmly rooted in Hungarian tradition, his own music came to actively embrace contributions from his other areas of study.

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.

When given its world premiere by the Boston Symphony on December 1, 1944, the Concerto For Orchestra was an immediate critical and audience success. It drew attention to the neglected composer and his other work. More commissions arrived. New projects were started. But Bartók’s health again failed and he died of leukemia the next September, leaving the Concerto for Orchestra as his testament.

Since a traditional concerto juxtaposes a highlighted solo instrument with an orchestra, Bartók explained his seemingly contradictory title as taking a basic symphonic texture and treating the individual orchestral instruments in a soloistic manner. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the second of the five movements, which he entitled the “Game of Pairs” – with a sound derived from Yugoslavian folk music, two bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes and trumpets each in turn play a sly, jaunty tune in parallel sixths, thirds, sevenths, fifths and seconds, and then repeat the process augmented by further 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.

The Concerto is also deeply personal – while he was writing the fourth movement, Bartók heard a radio broadcast of Shostakovich’s Symphony # 7 which, despite its vapid bombast, had become wildly popular (undoubtedly due to its timely subject depicting the siege of Leningrad). Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony (concert, 1944). Resentful of how such trash could become such a sensation while his own vastly superior music languished, Bartók created an “interrupted intermezzo” in which a vulgarized version of one of Shostakovich’s trite militaristic themes barges in but is quickly submerged by a Hungarian melody of simple, honest purity.

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