Béla Bartók ‘Concerto for Orchestra’: Hungary for Musical Success

Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra  is an absolutely fantastic five-movement piece of orchestral music that was written in 1943 and premièred in December 1944 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Another underrated composer in my eyes,  Bartók’s music is incredibly down to earth and experimental, but not as radical as composers such as Schoenberg and Webern. Born in Hungary in 1881, Bartók is another composer who showed potential from a young age. Able to distinguish dance themes from a young age, his mother started teaching him piano to bring out his musical talents. Bartók then studied at The Royal Academy of Music in Budapest where he started to establish a name for himself. By 1940 he was tempted to flee Hungary because he strongly opposed Hungary’s siding with the German Nazis. This caused him many issues as he refused to give concerts of his music in Germany, which consequently lost him a lot of publishing contracts from around that area, and also in his own country. Thus in 1940 he and his wife at the time, Ditta Pásztory-Bartók, fled to the USA to settle down in New York City.

When he wrote his Concerto for Orchestra between 15th August – 8th October 1943 (as inscribed in the original score) it was for a commission that Bartók received from the Koussevitzky Foundation. If this commission hadn’t come about, Bartók’s last work could of been his String Quartet No.6, which he wrote before he left Hungary. The name Concerto for Orchestra is one that is bemusing and puzzling as there is no direct solo instrument within the work, nor does any of it actually function as a concerto. Bartók explained his reasoning for the title saying that although the texture is symphonic, each individual instrument is written like a soloist. This approach can be heard throughout most of the movements, but its the most prominent in the second.

The first movement is essentially in sonata-allegro form, and the first 75 bars acts as a slow introduction before the fiery allegro section. The slow introduction gives us a taste of Bartók’s famous ‘Night Music’ style which he used in his orchestral works in his mature period. Night music is a style which encompasses natural sounds and takes the listener on a journey of eerie dissonances, melancholy solo lines (firstly from the flute) and a somewhat tour of the orchestra as orchestra layer up to segue into the allegro vivace section at bar 76. The fugal section is fast-paced, thrilling and really shows off the orchestra and the technical writing of Bartók. As well as using a fugal approach, Bartók also uses a memorable dotted-quaver theme which repeats at least once in all of the instruments. Bartók’s use of ever-changing time signatures, complex rhythmic structures and technically demanding parts creates a virtuosic first movement to this brilliant piece of music.

The second movement, most famous for its use of Yugoslavian folk-dance themes, is a musical gateway for instruments to be treated more like soloists, yet still being a crucial part of the symphonic sound. The opening firstly shows off the side drum as a solo instrument, with it playing an interesting quaver-semi-quaver motif, which returns in variation throughout the movement. Then a pair of bassoons join playing a Yugoslavian folk-theme, which ties Bartók back to his homeland. Along with many of his contemporaries, Bartók also uses nationality a lot for his inspiration for compositions. The bassoons are a minor sixth apart, which is important to hear because when the oboes then take over a varied theme, they are in fact minor thirds apart. Consequently, when the clarinets play their variation they are in minor sevenths and when the flutes play their paired musical theme they are in fifths. The trumpets are the last duo in this menagerie of variations and they are in major seconds. One of my favourite parts of this movement is where a brass chorale is written from b.173. Its a lovely change in texture from fragmented strings and folk-dance rhythms to a warm, lyrical brass chorale sound which offers the listener another pathway into Bartók’s musical genius. After some call and response work and some variations on previous themes between the wind players, the movement ends with the side drum playing its opening theme.

The third movement is a slow movement and also shows Bartók’s night music style. It starts with double basses and timpani playing a long melancholy motif, which is then layered up in all the strings from the bottom to the top. By b.10 we start to hear the hendectuplets (11 tuplets) flutter between the clarinet and the flute, which for me gives it an air of magic and mystery. The harp is also playing similar runs, though with slightly varying rhythmic treatment which gives it a much more unsteady feel. The oboe plays a simply melody over the top of this madness below, which is in a high octave for the instrument. Lots of unison discipline is used in this movement, with especially the woodwind having to work very hard to stay completely together. I find this movement intriguing as it offers a rather strange atmosphere for the listener.

The fourth movement, acting as an intermezzo definitely offers an interesting segue between movements three and five. A theme is quickly established in the oboe and is passed around the orchestra throughout the movement. Lovely long and lyrical themes are interrupted as trombones and winds glissandi in a brash tone. Brash trills from upper brass also play a part towards interruption. The movement is a parody of themes from Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow. This movement is fairly short and it builds a pathway for the chaotic movement that is next.

The fifth and final movement is definitely my favourite as it offers so much colour and excitement within the orchestra. Whenever I hear this movement it always reminds of a Tom and Jerry sketch due to the nature of the music. The beginning is a horn theme which leads into a fast paced presto section which sees some incredibly technical demand needed from the string section. The swirly sounds underneath the themes above create an organised chaos atmosphere which I find most fun! These very fast sections are complimented by slower, tranquil sections which just build a pathway back up to the fast-paced themes. This movement is also in sonata-allegro form so within the development section different folk melodies are manipulated and passed around the orchestra. I love the programmatic feel to this movement as you can really make your own story to go with it. This movement is packed full of complex rhythmic structures and chromatic harmony which give it a fruitful and colourful sound for the listener. The ending is powerful with the whole orchestra ending on a quaver beat after dramatic ascending septuplet runs.

I love this piece of music as I think its so clever to utilise the orchestra in such a way. I find it a triumphant work and I urge you to listen to it because it’ll be worth your time! Bartók is a brilliant Hungarian composer who’s contribution to 20th century music has been incredibly important and remains to be that way. The Concerto for Orchestra was incredibly successful and brought Bartók a lot of fame in the USA, and the piece is regarded as one of the best instrumented pieces of all time and is regularly played.

Disclaimer – The title is an awful pun…not a spelling mistake! (Apologies)

Recommended recordings:

The Orchestra of the University of Music – Nicholás Pasquet

Another great recording from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.