Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is the great composer’s most frequently performed and recorded work, one that often elicits complex responses in listeners. Some commentators see the Concerto as Bartók’s reflection on the turmoil that enveloped the world and his own life, while others see it as nothing less than the summation of a singular career. Whatever the interpretation, there is no doubt that the circumstances of its composition make the Concerto all the more remarkable.
Bartók and his wife reluctantly fled their native Hungary in 1940 to escape the ravages of World War II, settling in New York City. Fiercely nationalistic, Bartók was never entirely comfortable in America and found it difficult to compose. For their part Americans showed little interest in his music, and the Bartóks lived in near-poverty. To make matters worse, by 1942 Bartok was exhibiting symptoms of a debilitating illness. By the time leukemia was diagnosed in 1944 his failing health had necessitated hospitalization.
Just when a despondent Bartók was convinced his musical career had ended, conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned an orchestral work. A newly-energized Bartók completed the commission in eight weeks, and the Concerto for Orchestra premiered in Boston on December 1, 1944. The premiere was a success and the Concerto went on to become Bartók’s most popular piece, though he did not live to see its full impact. Béla Bartók died aged 64 in September 1945.
In terms of sonata form, the Concerto for Orchestra is an unusual work, starting with its title. A “concerto” normally denotes a large-scale composition for a solo instrument or instruments accompanied by an orchestra. An example is Schumann’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Minor. In Bartók’s piece there is no single soloist or ensemble of soloists. As he explained:
- 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 section of the development of the first movement (brass instruments), or in the perpetuum-mobile-like passage of the principal theme of the last movement (strings), and especially in the second movement, in which pairs of instruments consecutively appear with brilliant passages.
The five-movement Concerto has a symmetrical “arch” structure in which the outer movements frame the two even-numbered movements. The third, slow movement is the center of the arch and marks a turning point in the musical progression, which starts with the somber and introspective and evolves into the high-spirited, or what Bartók termed a “life-assertion.” There is also a surprising amount of sharp humor, as the composer transcended his trials and travails to create spirited music of great warmth and optimism that continues to resonate with audiences.