After receiving piano lessons from his mother, Béla Bartók studied in Pozsony (present-day Bratislava) before enrolling in the Royal Academy in Budapest, where he was introduced to composition. Early influences were Richard Strauss, then Debussy and eventually Stravinsky and Schoenberg. However, as Roland de Candé notes, though Bartók was thoroughly familiar with their work, “his originality was too great for him to fit into contemporary musical movements.” Bartók also appreciated Liszt and Brahms for their Hungarian Gypsy style, part of his lifelong fascination with folk music, which saw him collecting thousands of Eastern European folk tunes and songs whose peculiarities would end up marking his style.
A professor at the Liszt Academy in Budapest from 1907 onward, he also went on frequent concert tours of Europe and the United States. In 1940, fleeing Nazism, he moved to New York, where his works met with less than the hoped for success. Despite support from colleagues, his finances were precarious. Five years later, he succumbed to leukemia. His work embraces all genres. For de Candé, “everything is exceptional in this music carved from crystal: the transparency and tonal ambiguity of the harmony, the profound originality of the instrumentation, the daring and independent spirit of its creator.”
Bartók composed his Concerto for Orchestra in 1943 on a commission from conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who enthusiastically declared it “the best orchestra piece of the last 25 years.” As the title implies, the work is a nod to the past: much as in the concertos con molti stromenti popular in Bach’s day, specific instruments, above all the winds, take brief turns playing a concertante role with the orchestra. The five movements are structured like an arch: the first corresponds to the fifth and the second to the fourth, with the central Elegia forming the keystone. Their progression represents, in the composer’s own words, “a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement […] to the life-assertion of the last one.”
The Introduzione moves in jumping fourths that start in the basses, instilling an air of mystery and imminent danger. As if to ward off the foreboding, stark fugato motifs run through the strings, a process repeated in the last movement. In the very rhythmic banter of the Giuoco delle coppie (game of couples), paired winds dash into “dance tunes of a subtle charm,” as Tranchefort puts it, interrupted by a kind of slow chorale in the brass. The radically different Elegia, undoubtedly the work’s most Bartókian movement, is a lugubrious death song. The Intermezzo opens with folk-like melody that is interrupted by the clarinet, satirizing a theme from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony to quotes from a song from Lehar’s The Merry Widow along with mocking glissandos from the trombones and snickering from the strings.
The Finale is a perpetuum mobile that, as Ernest Ansermet said, “runs to the coda, a dizzying coda: like a great gust of wind,waves of phosphorescent-coloured strings seem to carry away fragments of the fugue until the theme of it bursts forth in all its grandeur on brass instruments.”
© François Filiatrault
Translation by Craig Schweickert