Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116, BB 123

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        Every great composer may be said to be unique, but Béla Bartók’s artistic position in the world of twentieth-century music stands apart. He was a Hungarian pianist and ethno-musicologist who also happened to compose, and as his career evolved he contributed some of the most esteemed and respected works to the standard repertoire. His was a musical style that was founded upon an intimate knowledge of the great styles and techniques of the past; a seminal appreciation of the possibilities of integrating the materials of Central European folk music into art music; and an uncommon elegance, restraint, and sophistication. His innovations in textures, colors, and structure laid the foundations for myriad others who followed.

        Reared and educated in Budapest, he early on embarked as a typical conservatory pianist, performing the standard repertory with which we are all so familiar. He performed for much of his life, but his rather dour personality and lack of “soloist” image restricted his success. What changed his life was his “discovery” of the folk music of his native Hungary. He and his famous friend and colleague, Zoltán Kodály, starting around 1908, toured extensively in the backcountry of Hungary with an Edison cylinder machine making recordings of thousands of folksongs. Later they transcribed them and issued scholarly publications, becoming literally pioneers in the field. Both of them, but especially Bartók, sought to find ways of taking the scales, harmonies, and rhythms of this material and using them a foundation for new ways of composing art music for a universal audience. And in this he was spectacularly successful. The litany of masterpieces that emerged in the ensuing years is an imposing one. Among them, to just name a few, are the six string quartets, Mikrokosmos (a series of graded piano compositions for youth), three piano concertos, the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and the Concerto for Orchestra. All of which, together with others, constitute a body of compositions not exceeded in significance and integrity—not to mention popularity—by that of any other composer of the twentieth century. Quite a legacy.

        The Concerto for Orchestra was composed in America in 1943, while the composer was in dire health with the leukemia that ultimately killed him. He had emigrated from Hungary to America in 1940 to escape the Nazis, and struggled to survive economically and physically thereafter, notwithstanding his substantial international reputation. His fellow countrymen, the conductor, Sergei Koussevitzky, and the violinist, Josef Szigeti, arranged for a major commission for the Boston Symphony Orchestra to support their friend at the nadir of his life. A masterpiece resulted.

        It is entitled, “concerto,” yet there is no apparent soloist; but in fact, there is a long history of “orchestral” concertos, going back at least to J.S. Bach. Bartók so-named his composition because of the frequent emphasis throughout the work for solo instruments or sections of instruments, as we shall see. Set in five movements, one will hear the typical arch, or “bow” structure of the whole, that is, movements one and five, and two and four are equivalent, and surround the central third movement. One can hear, for example, fugal passages and sonata form in both the first and last movements, and immensely entertaining “diversions” in the second and fourth movements.

        The first movement begins with a dark, ominous passage in the string basses, altogether fitting for the composer’s state of mind at the time. It is an evocation of one of Bartók’s most famous characteristics, the “night music.” A unique contribution to musical atmosphere, it consists of eerie, soft evocations of nature at night. Indistinct, blurred textures, with mysterious sounds generated by imaginative orchestration techniques, call to mind unknown insects and creatures, in a dark, vaguely threatening environment. The second movement is a jolly little one, called “Games (or Presentation) of the Couples.” One of the work’s most popular movements, it consists of five sections, each featuring a pair of instruments playing in parallel—each pair at a different interval. So, one will hear successively, bassoons in minor sixths, oboes in minor thirds, clarinets in minor sevenths, flutes in fifths, and finally, muted trumpets in major seconds. A drum acts master of ceremonies at the beginning and end. Bartók picked this little idea up from the native Dalmatians, who sang in a somewhat similar fashion. The third, or central movement is a more elaborate example of the “night music” style heard in the first movement. The fourth movement, like the second, has an entertaining style, this time featuring a not-so-thinly-disguised thumb of the nose to Shostakovich. The latter’s seventh symphony was all the rage in America at this time and Bartók thought it was trash. So, we hear simple little Hungarian tunes interrupted by a rude satire of the “Nazi” march from the Shostakovich symphony. This, in turn, is interrupted by glissandos in the crude trombones. The Hungarian tunes don’t care, and merrily go on their way. Of some interest in this movement is the use of all twelve pitches in the kettledrums in fast succession—watch the timpanist’s intensity! The last movement opens with a great flourish from the unison horns followed by fugatos (think of them as fugues that don’t quite make it) and fugues—yet more reminder of Bartók’s great respect for tradition. The whole thing ends in a brilliant climax.

        Rarely, it seems to me that a composition such as this comes along. That is to say, one of impeccable sophistication and integrity by one of “modern” music’s greatest composers, in an advanced musical style, yet as beloved by audiences as by the members of the orchestra. It is a masterpiece in every respect.

---Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan