In the last years of his life, Béla Bartók lived modestly in a small apartment in Manhattan, Upper West Side. He shared his life with his second wife, the pianist Dita Pastori, and wrote works commissioned by influential musical figures. Unfortunately, he lacked only one thing – health – and for that reason the composer did not live to see the recognition his music received in the late 1950s. Today, his name is mentioned with adoration alongside the names of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, as one of the three undisputed giants of contemporary music.
At the beginning of 1943, after several difficult years in which Bartók had every reason to feel depressed due to the rare performances of his works and the ensuing financial scarcity, a turnaround finally occurred. His Concerto for orchestra, commissioned by Sergei Kusevitsky, comes to life and its premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra was more than successful. As a result, several violinists – Yehudi Menuhin mainly- suddenly “discovered” and began performing Bartók’s then-neglected Violin Concerto No 2 (written in 1938), and the work was enthusiastically received in the United States and Great Britain. Although the composer was diagnosed with leukemia at the end of 1943, his appearance still did not suggest the terrible disease and Bartók seemed to be in good health. He even wrote to a friend that he had finally managed to secure a decent, albeit modest, existence thanks to the fees he had received. After the premiere of the Concerto for Orchestra, the composer received a commission from Menuhin for a violin sonata, and the famous violist William Primrose, a member of the London String Quartet, asked him to write Concerto for viola and orchestra. Primrose was convinced that Bartok will compose a sufficiently complex play to demonstrate his performing skills, and assured him that “he should not feel in any way hindered by the obvious technical limitations imposed by the instrument.” Unfortunately, when he started writing the concert, Bartok was already in the final stages of his illness and was unable to complete the work. After his death, only sketches of the concert remain.
Gloomy and reserved by nature, Bartók was visibly encouraged and stimulated by the attention of such important figures as Kusewicki, Menuhin and Primrose. He finished the sonata for Menuhin and wrote his Piano Concerto No 3 as a gift for his wife’s birthday. However, death overtook him before he finished the third part of the work and the last 17 bars remained unwritten. Later, the composer’s friend, composer and conductor Tibor Serly, found them among his drafts and added them to the score. Serly has also prepared the completion and release the Viola Concerto commissioned by Primrose.
On September 8th , 1945, less than three weeks before his death, Bartok wrote to Primrose: “I am very happy to inform you that your viola concerto has been drafted, so the score will be ready soon. This means that only the purely technical work remains to be done … If nothing prevents me, I will be ready in 5-6 weeks and I will send you a copy of the orchestral score in the second half of October …. This work will be quite transparent, more transparent than the violin concerto. Also, the darker and more masculine character of your instrument influences the overall character of the work. The highest tone is “А”, but I often use the lower registers. The concertо is written in a very virtuoso style. Some passages may seem awkward or unplayable. We will discuss them later according to your observations. “
Alas, there was no “later”. Bartók died on September 26th , 1945, taking with himself much of what he had imagined for the viola concerto, which was certainly much more present in his head than on paper. The “draft” he speaks of is a total of 15 unnumbered handwritten pages, completely impossible to decipher by people unfamiliar with his writing methods. Even Serly, who took care of their arrangement, quickly understands the challenge he faced. He had to complement the harmony and overall orchestration, which he said was “the least difficult, as the leading voices and counterpoint lines on which the accompaniment was composed were clearly indicated on the manuscript.” However, the “purely mechanical work” that Bartók was talking about, and which would have been such indeed, turned out to be much more difficult and took more than two years to be done by another person.
The Viola and Orchestra Concerto was performed for the first time on December 2, 1949 by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. The solo was performed by William Primrose, and on the conductor’s stand was the former student of Bartok – Antal Doráti.
Here is what Tibor Serly says about the concert:
“The first part begins with a solo viola, accompanied by light rhythmic beats. The cadence-like acceleration of the solo sets out the first 13 bars as an introduction, after which the theme actually begins … The second theme is “fantastic chromatic-counterpoint” and has no analogue among all the other music written by Bartók. Phrases rise, fall and intertwine. And yet the effect is of relaxing serenity.
Short interlude Lento parlando precedes the second movement … It evokes the idea of cantor improvisation. A motif in a solo bassoon leads to the second movement itself. The expressive simplicity of this music is determined by the three-part – ABA – song form. Here Bartók has managed to use all the registers of the viola … Towards the end, the motives from the theme of the first part sound again, hurrying to the cadence, which without a pause leads straight into the allegreto – the introduction of the third part.
The finale is a contrast to everything preceding. It is a merry dance written in a rondo form and is Romanian rather than Hungarian in nature. The solo viola moves at a breathless pace, which slows down slightly only in the folklore melody of the trio … Henceforth, ascending and descending chromatic formations are reminiscent of the similar use of chromatisms in the second theme of the first part. The four bars of the fortissimo tutti, followed by the ascending passages of the viola, lead to a breathtaking ending.