Concert Notes

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra

Notes by TŌN violinist Zongheng Zhang

A Life-Saving Commission
Facing a poor financial situation and extremely heavy homesickness, the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók stopped composing any new music after moving to America in 1940. Two of his friends, violinist Joseph Szigeti and conductor Fritz Reiner, tried to help him by reaching out to Serge Koussevitsky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and asking him to commission a work from Bartók. Koussevitsky agreed, and he personally delivered the first check to the composer. Thanks to Szigeti and Reiner’s help, we are fortunate to have this amazing work. Bartók finished his iconic Concerto for Orchestra in just two months in 1943. He outlined the piece by saying 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.”

A Concerto Without Soloist
In general, a concerto is usually for a solo instrument with an orchestra accompaniment. What would a concerto be if it was purposely written just for orchestra? Bartók explained his seemingly contradictory title as taking a basic symphonic texture and treating the individual orchestral instruments in a soloistic manner. In this work, Bartók largely took the elements from his study of folk music and abstracted them into classical music form. The first and last movements of the Concerto for Orchestra are in a standard “sonata” form with an exposition area introducing the main themes, a development section, and then a recapitulation of those main themes. In the middle three movements, one can also find quotes from Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony and Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, the latter of which was unfamiliar to Bartók at the time. The last movement brings back all the elements and pushes the virtuous to an even higher level in the fugal carnival-like section, leading the orchestra to a grand ending.