This Week in Music History: Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra premieres (1944)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The premiere of a singular work that revived the failing health of its composer: Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra

Hugely renowned in his native Europe, the young Béla Bartók can hardly have imagined that he would receive perhaps the most important commission of his life while languishing with an unknown disease on a hospital bed in New York, after several barren years. But the final chapter in Bartók’s life story was full of surprises.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, as the Nazis consolidated power in Europe, many Europeans hurried to emigrate—among them some of the leading figures in the continent’s creative life. The first-choice destination for many was the USA. Composers from Igor Stravinsky to Arnold Schoenberg began their lives again in the States, not to mention writers Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann.

All of those four settled in the sunny climes of California, but Bartók, who moved in 1940, made his new home on the East Coast rather than the West. His publisher and agency, Boosey & Hawkes, had promised him “magnificent possibilities,” but they failed to materialize. Concert opportunities dried up, his piano duo with his wife was coldly received, and to make matters worse Bartók was seriously ill—he would eventually be diagnosed with leukaemia, but not until 1944.

In early 1943, while admitted to hospital in New York, Bartók received a visit from the conductor Serge Koussevitzky. Two more Hungarian expatriates, violinist Josef Szigeti and conductor Fritz Reiner, had encouraged Koussevitzky to commission a major work from the ailing composer. Bartók’s health quickly improved, and he wrote the piece— his Concerto for Orchestra—in just two months.

The first performance was given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Koussevitzky, on December 1, 1944. Despite the difficult time he had had there, Bartók seems to have understood the American public very well: the work was a considerable success. It’s remained a favourite of concert halls, in the US and abroad, ever since.

What is a concerto for orchestra? It’s a term that seems to make both complete sense, and almost no sense at all. A concerto is most often a work for a solo instrument with orchestra accompanying—so at heart the term is contradictory. But another key feature of concertos is that they allow the soloist to show their virtuosity—and there are, of course, plenty of virtuoso performers sitting within the ranks of any top orchestra. So a concerto for orchestra is more or less what it sounds like: a piece that allows the whole orchestra to demonstrate its technical brilliance. Bartók—not the first to use the term—takes care to give each of the different sections of the orchestra a chance to shine, and it culminates in a thrillingly tricky finale (above) which puts the whole ensemble through its collective paces. Between the vibrant outer movements lie a vivid pair of scherzos, and between them is an enigmatic, elegiac slow movement that visits some dark places.

Bartók was given a new lease of life by this commission, and the Concerto’s success led to several others, including the Third Piano Concerto and the Viola Concerto. But his health did not hold up: the Viola Concerto had to be completed after his death in September 1945.

Watch Pierre Boulez and the Berliner Philharmoniker play Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra!

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