The Kennedy Center

Concerto for Orchestra

About the Work

Béla Bartók Composer: Béla Bartók
© Thomas May

"In my youth," Béla Bartók once remarked, "Bach and Mozart were not my ideals of the beautiful, but rather Beethoven." And Beethoven remained his touchstone for the string quartet in his own cycle of six quartets that spanned over three decades of the Hungarian composer's career. Beethoven was likewise a key model for the remarkable balance of discipline, formal innovation, and exciting fantasy that keeps Bartók's mature music so perennially appealing. Indeed, the influence of the late Beethoven quartets informs extends beyond Bartók's chamber music to such concert hall scores as Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (premiered in 1937), which opens with a fugal movement.

When he wrote that seminal score, Bartók had not yet been compelled to abandon his beloved Hungary for the reluctant exile of his final years. There were, however, clear signs of his unease as fascism spread during what the poet W.H. Auden was so famously to denounce as "a low dishonest decade." (In 1935 the composer refused an award for one of his early pieces, declaring "I do not wish to accept the Greguss Medal in the present or in the future, neither alive nor dead.") Once the Second World War was under way-the Hungarian government had allied with the Nazis-Bartók set sail with his second wife for the United States. A downward spiral had begun, and Bartók found himself alienated in this new land. He faced an indifferent public, and the leukemia that would kill him soon after the war ended began to affect his health.

It was in the midst of this very dark period for the composer-when it seemed his creativity had reached its terminus-that a new commission arrived, in the summer of 1943, for an orchestral work. Serge Koussevitzky, the famous director of the Boston Symphony, asked Bartók for a new piece for that ensemble. He had been prompted by the intervention of the composer's allies and fellow Hungarians, the conductor (and former Bartók student) Fritz Reiner and the violinist Joseph Szigeti. Though he reportedly weighed less than 100 pounds when he undertook the commission, Bartók rallied and produced one of the great success stories of modern music. The Concerto for Orchestra, which he composed in the summer and early fall of 1943, premiered in December of the following year. It was soon embraced by both critics and the public and has become an orchestral staple.

Its musical poetry remains bracing almost 70 years later. The idea of a concerto featuring not just a soloist, as in Mozart's classical example of the genre, but for the whole ensemble as a collective of virtuosos did not begin with Bartók, and it would be taken up by numerous other composers in his wake. At the same time, Bartók revives something of the Baroque concept of the concerto-the so-called "concerto grosso"- which juxtaposes various smaller groupings of instruments against the texture of the larger ensemble. And of course the Concerto for Orchestra also serves to showcase the expressive power and versatility of a modern orchestra. Indeed, instrumental timbre turns out to be a significant dimension of this music, along with its innovative formal design and the manner in which Bartók develops his thematic material.

In formal terms, the Concerto can also be regarded as a symphony in five movements, beginning in a dark, brooding mood but finding its way to triumphant affirmation. (For a number of reasons, he regarded the symphony per se at this moment in history as passé.) Bartók lays out this five-movement design according to one of his favorite patterns: the palindromic or arch-like structure ABCBA. Thus the slow third movement is the tragic center and is surrounded by two lighter interludes, which in turn are framed by the two longest (and fastest) movements.

Contrast fuels the opening movement, in which a slow introduction is followed by an allegro crowded with furious counterpoint. Each of the three inner movements has a distinctive feature. The scherzo-like second (titled "The Game of Pairs") presents pairs of instruments in sequence, with a brass chorale as the trio. The haunting "Elegy" at the heart of the Concerto recalls material from the slow introduction and contains traits of Bartók's signature "night music." The fourth movement ("Interrupted Intermezzo") plays with clichés of "innocent" folk music, while the rude "interruption" is often claimed to represent Shostakovich, whose Seventh Symphony (the "Leningrad") had recently become a popular rallying cry of resistance to the invading Germans. (The music that is allegedly being parodied was itself intended by Shostakovich as a savage parody of the forces of totalitarianism). Other interpretations, however, have challenged that longstanding view of Bartók's intent. In any case, the presto finale, with its madly whirring strings and brass fanfares, urges the Concerto on to a thrilling conclusion in Bartók's inimitable style.