Concerto for Orchestra

CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA is one of Béla Bartók’s most famous works. At the beginning of 1943, while he was delivering a series of lectures on folk music at Harvard University, Béla Bartók’s already fragile health took a drastic downturn, necessitating a battery of medical examinations. While in hospital in New York he was visited by Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who commissioned him to write a work in memory of his recently deceased wife, Natalie Koussevitzky. Bartók accepted and created the Concerto for Orchestra in just two months at the  Saranac Lake in upstate New York. The score was completed on October 8, 1943. The first performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitzky on  December 1st,  1944 was a huge success with audiences and critics.

In connection with the concert, Bartók provided the following brief program note, something he very rarely did. He states that, The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one… 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 sections of the development of the first movement (brass instruments), or in the perpetuum mobile-like passage of the principal theme in the last movement (strings), and especially in the second movement, in which pairs of instruments consecutively appear with brilliant passages.

The Concerto for orchestra is in five movements. Like his Fourth and Fifth String Quartets (1928 and 1934), the movements form a balanced arch-like form. The main slow middle movement is surrounded by two scherzo movements, which in turn are flanked by two larger movements.

In the muted sonata allegro of the first movement, the Introduction (Andante non troppo), the characteristic style of Bartók’s ‘night music’ is evident. As the composer wrote, the dramaturgical progression moves from darkness to light, and the polyphonic development at the end of the movement prepares the joyous finale in the fifth movement. The second movement is titled Games of Couples (Allegretto scherzando). In the original three-movement form, five pairs of woodwind instruments are presented in succession, each pair playing in parallel motion at a different interval. They form a kind of chain of folk melodies. The middle section is chorale-like. In the slow third movement, the Elegy (Andante non troppo), unexpected ‘night music’ effects alternate with chorale episodes (similar to the middle section in the second movement). In the ensuing Interrupted Intermezzo (Allegretto) two very different themes alternate: one is choppy, the other is flowing, lush, romantic. Suddenly there is the satirical treatment of the familiar march theme from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, which Bartók heard on a radio broadcast. (Bartók’s use of it has been linked to various conjectures, one of which is that his transformation of the “elemental theme” was an ironic reaction to the Symphony’s popularity in America.) The final fifth movement (Presto) begins with characteristic dance rhythms and is built in Bartók’s characteristic perpetuum mobile. The final movement is constructed as a complex and extended fugue, building to a magnificent climax.

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