Thursday, December 1, 1994

Today in Music (1944): Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra premiered

Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116, BB 127

Béla Bartók (composer)

Composed: 1943-1945

First Performed: December 1, 1944

Peak: --

Sales (in millions): --

Genre: classical > concerto


  1. I. Introduzione
  2. II. Giuoco delle coppie
  3. III. Elegia
  4. IV. Intermezzo interrotto
  5. V. Finale

Average Duration: 37:40


4.670 out of 5.00 (average of 7 ratings)


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About the Album:

In 1943, Béla Bartók had been in the United States less than three years. He faced financial hardship, a leukemia diagnosis, and a feeling of “artistic isolation and separation from the source of his inspiration, Hungary, and its wealth of folk music.” MS His life had seemingly “come to a standstill when he received a commission for a large orchestral work from Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The funds for the commission came, unbeknownst to Bartók, from his close friends and fellow Hungarian émigrés Joseph Szigeti and Fritz Reiner.” MS

Bartók worked on the concerto from August to October 1943. MS It debuted at the Boston Symphony Hall on December 1, 1944 with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. WK Bartók couldn’t attend, but heard a later performance in New York City. MS

This is one of Bartók’s “best-known, most popular and most accessible works.” WK It contrasts with “the conventional concerto form, which features a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment. Bartók said that he called the piece a concerto rather than a symphony because of the way each section of instruments is treated in a soloistic and virtuosic way.” WK

The concerto is comprised of five movements, “arranged in what is called an ‘arch’ form, in which the first and fifth movements are related, as are the second and fourth, with the third movement functioning as the keystone of the arch. The Concerto’s opening bars present a theme of rising fourths in cellos and basses, answered by tremolando strings and fluttering flutes in Bartók’s characteristic ‘night music’ style. Trumpets, pianissimo, chant a pungent, short-phrased chorale on which the theme of the main Allegro vivace is based. A lyrical second theme is introduced by the oboe, but the mood remains dark as the material is developed. Only when brass erupt in a modal fugato section is there the suggestion that things may lighten. Bartók noted that the progress of the concerto was toward light from initial darkness, and that the thematic material of the fugato will return in modified form as the basis of the joyous moto perpetuo finale.” MS

“The second movement is titled Games of Couples, and presents woodwinds in successive pairs, with close intervallic relationships derived from Dalmatian folk music. The syncopated rhythm that accompanies these games – performed by side drum without snares – carries over into the middle section, a soft chorale for brass. Bartók described the keystone third movement, Elegia, as a ‘ugubrious death-song,’ in which unsettled "night music" effects alternate with intense, prayerful supplications (again related to the chorale-like material that pervades the first half of the work).” MS

“The subsequent Interrupted Intermezzo presents the first real carefree moments of the work, with its satiric treatment of the march theme from Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, which Bartók heard in a radio broadcast. Bartók scholar Elliott Antokoletz notes that the movement’s warm, cantabile melody for violas quotes a popular song by Zsigmond Vincze, ‘You are Lovely, You are Beautiful, Hungary,’ bringing an unmistakable note of homesickness to the music.” MS

“The finale opens with a leaping call to order for all four horns unison, followed by a wild moto perpetuo dance, in which the succeeding episodes hardly stop for breath. Bartók provided two endings, the first rather abrupt, the second more traditionally climactic, and making use of the upward-moving minor third motif that served as an intervallic motto for Bartók in many works. The alternate ending is the one that is usually played.” MS

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Last updated 11/26/2023.

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