Béla Bartók – Concerto for Orchestra
Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is a five-movement piece of orchestral music that was written in 1943. 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 Bartók composed 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 have been his String Quartet No.6, which he wrote before he left Hungary. The title Concerto for Orchestra is one that is potentially misleading 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 act 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 tour of the orchestra as instruments 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. The opening shows off the side drum as a solo instrument, with it playing an integral 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.
A brass chorale then takes over and completely changes the texture of this movement. From a fragmented sequence accentuating the folk-dance rhythms, to a much warmer, lyrical section gives that much needed light and shade to the music. 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 bar 10, we start to hear the hendectuplets (11 tuplets) flutter between the clarinet and the flute, which adds and air of mystery to the tone of this movement.
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 simple melody, which is in a high range for the instrument, over the top of these moving parts below. There are a lot of parts moving in unison within this movement, with the woodwinds having to work especially hard to create the desired effect.
The fourth movement of the work acts as an intermezzo between the third and fifth movements. A theme is quickly established in the oboe and is passed around the orchestra throughout the movement. Long and lyrical themes are interrupted as trombones and winds glissandi in a brash tone. Shrill 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 beginning of the movement hears a horn theme which leads into a fast paced presto section, which poses technical demand for the string section. The swirly sounds underneath the themes above create an organised chaos atmosphere, which can feel rather unnerving at times. 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 in sonata-allegro form so within the development section different folk melodies are manipulated and passed around the orchestra. 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.
Bartók is a brilliant Hungarian composer who’s contribution to 20th century music has been incredibly important and remains to be that way. His Concerto for Orchestra was incredibly successful and brought Bartók a lot of fame in the USA. The piece is regarded as one of the best instrumental pieces of all time and is regularly played in concert halls and on record.