Program Notes – Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra

Mozart’s last three symphonies, written together in the summer of 1788, stand apart from his others in several ways. First, it’s clear that he conceived of them as a kind of trilogy, which he had never tried before. Second, he might have written them with no clear idea of when they might be performed, which for him is exceptional. So though it’s not clear exactly what the impetus for these three was, we might imagine he had something personal to say through them, if only for posterity. He had, after all, been writing symphonies since he was eight and a half. But they stand apart in one other more pertinent sense: they are masterpieces of symphonic writing that surpass anything he or anyone else had yet composed. They are longer, more complex, more virtuosic, have a much broader palette of tone color, and are more serious than their predecessors. Far west in Bonn, a young composer named Ludwig van Beethoven just turned eighteen; it would be twelve years before his first symphony appeared.

The E-flat symphony (fun fact: his only one without oboes) opens with a slow, exultant and theatrical passage, a throwback to French ouvertures. A listener at a memorial concert for Mozart in 1792 noted that the effect of this grand introduction was that everyone was “prevented from being inattentive.” This leads ceremoniously into the beginning of the Allegro proper, which is in triple time. Trumpets and timpani sit out the andante, which presents two subjects: one sweet and delicate, the other stormy and contentious. A real, lederhosen-sporting Alpine ländler occupies the central part of the gallant third movement. The finale tumbles along with wit, presto-change-o theatrics, and verve.

In 1863, a nineteen-year-old Spanish violinist named Pablo de Sarasate approached Camille Saint-Saëns for a commission. Sarasate would become one of the most famous and influential violin superstars of the century, responsible for a great many masterpieces for that instrument. Since Saint-Saëns was no violinist, the project was unusually collaborative (Sarasate was a capable composer himself). The result, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, despite its formal title, is a fantasy showpiece for violin and orchestra. The introduction, short but suave and smoky, soon gives way to a rondo which may remind you of George Bizet’s spanish-flavored opera Carmen—but that’s the egg; this is the chicken. The popularity of this work and all things Sarasate created the demand that Bizet filled when he wrote that opera a dozen years later.

Bela Bartok was a deeply patriotic Hungarian. But in the 1930s in Hungary it was increasingly difficult to get along if you did not support the Nazis, and so he was obliged to leave. Upon arriving in New York with his family in October 1940, Bartok would not see his beloved homeland again. He was never quite comfortable in this country, and his health was disastrously declining, but he had some very influential champions in the music world here, including Fritz Reiner, who had studied with him in Budapest; Reiner was at that time the conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony. Another friend, the eminent violin virtuoso Joseph Szigeti had been here since the previous year, and greeted Bartok enthusiastically on his arrival. Two days later they played a recital at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Together Reiner and Szigeti persuaded the influential conductor of the Boston Symphony, Serge Koussevitsky, to commission a work for that crackerjack ensemble. “Kouss”, as he was affectionately known, visited Bartok in person, lying in a New York hospital bed, to make the request. The result is one of the very last works Bartok completed, and one of his most well-known masterpieces.

Concerto for Orchestra is typical of Bartok’s later phase, when he was obsessed with symmetrical arch forms. There are five movements; one in the center and two pairs flanking it on either side. A murky opening works up through the double basses to the flutes and trumpets, before a clear theme emerges, searing, from the violins. Bartok calls the second movement a “game of pairs”; after a short solo for side drum (snare drum without snare), pairs of woodwinds give five sets of themes, each locked together at different musical intervals. After a short, perky chorale for muted brass, these pairs are reprised in varying forms and the side drum brings the games to a close. The moody and atmospheric Elegy which follows is the central point of the work. Bartok described the fourth movement as a love serenade which is disrupted by a band of drunken revelers, but it is hard not to hear some allegory about Hungary’s fall to the Nazis in this music. The serenade theme is a superficially modified version of a popular tune, “Hungary, you are beautiful,” and the interruption is a parody of Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, written during and about the siege of Leningrad. Bartok pays homage in the whirling finale to the great tradition of folk dance music which he knew so well.


© Jamey Lamar 2018