Pompous, clear-cut, irritating, frightening, oppressive, siege mentality, bunker atmosphere, reinforced concrete, hard, sharp – the aesthetics of Hitler and Stalin. Those were my associations when I listened to Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (BB 123, SZ. 116) for the first time, more than two years ago. A brutal piece, a fascinating piece, one that I have grown fond of over time.
Summer 1943: In Europe Nazi troops are retreating, relentlessly pushed by the Red Army in the east, by British and US forces in North Africa and soon after in Italy. Bartok meanwhile has gone into exile, since 1940 he lives in the United States. But he suffers from severe health problems and the physicians do not come to grips with it. On August 15 he begins the composition of the concerto and surprise… he gets better. “I don’t know whether there is a relation between [the commission of the concerto] and the improvement of my health, anyway I am very busy. I spend most of the days at it. It is a work of huge dimensions: five movements. But the first four are already finished, presently I have some trouble with the last for different reasons, it’s the most difficult”, he writes to his son Peter.
The piece had been commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation. It had been founded in 1942 by Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Koussevitzky had been contacted by two of Bartok friends Fritz Reiner and Joszef Szigeti, who had suggested a commission to Koussevitzky. The foundation was willing to pay 1000 dollar under the condition that it would be dedicated to Natalie Koussevitzky, the defunct wife of the conductor. Bartok almost refused the commission, he was not sure to live long enough to complete it.
A clear political language
The composer himself explained the logic behind the piece in the programme notes for the premiere that took place on December 1, 1944, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “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 […] The title of this symphony is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertante or soloistic manner.” He emphasizes the role of the brass in fugue-like sections in the first movement and the pair of instruments that shine throughout the second movement.
The piece was an immediate and lasting success, due largely to the directness of its language. The piece had a clear political message at the time of its creation. In the fourth movement, Bartok quotes a popular Hungarian song that begins with the words “Hungary, your are beautiful, you are magnificent…” The song stems form an operette performed in 1922 in Budapest and became one of the songs of the resistance against foreign occupation and Fascist oppression. In the concerto is appears muffled by the sound of marching boots, a parody of a similar effect that Dmitry Shostakovich used in his Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad”, a piece that Bartok did not like at all.
The Concerto for Orchestra was also the last work Bartok completed; he died on September 26, 1945 and did not live to finish either the Third Piano Concerto or the Viola Concerto that followed it. It has been beautifully recorded by Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti, Saito Kinen Festival Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa and of course the Boston Symphony Orchestra, also led by Seiji Ozawa.
© Charles Thibo