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Viola Concerto, Op. posthumous (1949)

Portrait of composer Bartók, Béla

Bartók, Béla

Mar 25, 1881 - Sep 26, 1945


There is always something a bit unnerving when we encounter a composer’s last, unfinished work, especially when it has been completed by another. Such is the case with Bartók’s Viola Concerto, music of great lyricism, yearning and nostalgia written for a solo instrument that seldom gets a moment in the spotlight.   Learn more


Born in Nagyszentmiklós, Transylvania, Hungary, (now Sint Micolau Mare, Romania), March 25, 1881;
died in New York City, September 26, 1945

Bartók is often ranked by music historians as one of the three or four most influential composers of the first half of the twentieth century, along with Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Bartók’s great achievement was to fuse elements of Hungarian nationalism with traditional forms into a unique style and music of great expressive power. Even though he seldom quoted folk songs directly, almost everything he wrote breathes the air of Hungary.

A staunch individualist

Physically, Bartók was a small, frail man but he radiated great strength and fierce determination. Even in the days when his music was still hardly performed, even in Hungary, Bartók told the august Budapest Philharmonic that he wanted them never to play his music again after they had given a sloppy performance of his Dance Suite. In his will, he stated that he did not want any street in Hungary to bear his name as long as tyrants remained in power there.

The music

If by some unimaginable catastrophe all the music of Béla Bartók save the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta were to vanish from the earth, musicologists of the future would still be able to establish a nearly complete musical profile of the composer based on this work alone. Not only is it one of his supreme masterpieces, but it is quintessential Bartók as well, incorporating a veritable catalogue of his stylistic fingerprints: the use of folk-inspired elements (rhythms, scales, melodies) from Eastern Europe, textural clarity, contrapuntal forms, structural rigor, percussive dissonance, propulsive rhythms, favored intervals (seconds, fourths, sevenths), asymmetrical rhythmic groupings, and sonorous combinations almost too numerous to count.

Although Bartók’s musical proclivities showed themselves early, he did not begin to achieve recognition as a composer until he was nearly forty. Today his renown rests on a wide range of compositions: for string quartet, for orchestra, for the stage, and for piano.

The string quartets

The six quartets collectively rank as one of the monuments of twentieth-century chamber music, occupying a position roughly comparable to Beethoven’s in the nineteenth. No other major composer of the last century, save Shostakovich and perhaps Elliott Carter, so richly endowed the medium with his most significant musical thought and uncompromising personal expression as did Bartók.

Orchestral works

For orchestra there are the aforementioned Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, the Divertimento for Strings, the Concerto for Orchestra, a viola concerto, three piano concertos, two violin concertos and an assortment of shorter solo pieces for this instrument with orchestra. Much of this music displays enormous vitality, brilliant orchestration, pounding rhythms (often wildly asymmetrical) and folk-inflected melodic lines.

The stage works

All three of Bartók’s works for the stage date from the period 1911-1919. In order, they are the opera Bluebeard’s Castle, the ballet-mime The Miraculous Mandarin, and another ballet, The Wooden Prince.

Bluebeard’s Castle lasts but an hour, requires just two singers, has no chorus, no arias, not one hummable tune and virtually no action. Its slim plot is laden with symbolism. But what this opera does have is some of the most vibrant and riveting orchestral music of the entire twentieth century, a psychological depth rarely found in opera of any period, and a profound expressiveness that keeps Bartók’s name securely within the world of opera. It is also a lighting director’s dream, for mood and color are everything.

Macabre, gruesome, lurid, grotesque, devastating and sensuous are just some of the terms often used to describe The Miraculous Mandarin, whose scenario involves muggers, a pimp, a prostitute, a love-starved young man, an old roué and a supernatural creature (the mandarin) all mixed up in robbery, murder and almost uncounted acts of violence. Definitely not for the squeamish!

The Wooden Prince is far tamer; it is set in fairyland and deals with man’s search for happiness and fulfillment.

Bartók and the piano

Bartók’s career as a composer tends to overshadow that of pianist, but he was a formidable executant. His position at the Budapest Conservatory was Professor of Piano (he never taught composition), and he wrote for the instrument throughout his career. Most of the works for solo piano date from the earlier part of his life. These include the Bagatelles, For Children, Seven Sketches, Out of Doors and the celebrated Mikrokosmos, 153 little pieces of ascending difficulty designed to acquaint young pianists with modern keyboard sounds and skills.

Bartók the ethnomusicologist

Over and above being one of the outstanding composers of his time, a virtuoso pianist and professor, Bartók was one of the world’s first and most influential ethnomusicologists. This is a branch of study that investigates the musical activity of ethnic cultures and the common folk. Bartók’s interest in this subject began with music of his native Hungary in 1905, an interest that soon spread to involve neighboring lands as well. Over the next several decades, he collected and catalogued some 20,000 melodies from Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Transylvania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey and North Africa. In addition, he published scholarly treatises on the subject and devised methodologies that are still valid today.

Life in the New World

Bartók immigrated to New York City after leaving his native Hungary in 1940 due to the increasing Nazification of Europe. His life in New York was anything but pleasant. He was constantly plagued by problems of health, finances, living accommodations and the emotional strain of living in a foreign country where his music was neither known nor appreciated. As a result, he composed nothing for three years. This silence was broken only through the efforts of two famous Hungarian musicians also living in the U.S., violinist Joseph Szigeti and conductor Fritz Reiner. They persuaded Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, to approach Bartók with a commission to write a work for his orchestra. When Koussevitzky visited Bartók in his New York hospital room, where he was resting from the still-undiagnosed disease that would later kill him (leukemia), the composer initially rejected the offer, feeling too weak and depressed to work. But the idea of writing for so distinguished an ensemble fired his imagination, and within a short time, he became so excited by the prospect that he left the hospital and went to Lake Saranac in upstate New York to write the Concerto for Orchestra. This was to become his most popular orchestral work.

The end

Bartók had nearly finished his Third Piano Concerto when he was rushed to the hospital on September 22, 1945. Upon his death four days later, only seventeen bars remained to be scored, a minor task undertaken by the composer’s friend and fellow Hungarian, Tibor Serly. “Bartók wrote feverishly to the very last to complete the Piano Concerto,” reported Serly, “and it was touching to note that he had prematurely scrawled in pencil the Hungarian word vege (the end) on the last bar of his sketch copy, as though he were desperately trying to reach it. On no other score had he ever written this word.”

Concert Program Notes

Béla Bartók: Born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Sinnicolau Mare, Romania), March 25, 1881; died in New York City, September 26, 1945

During the final two years of his life, which were spent largely in a hospital in New York City, Bartók worked on three different concertos: the Concerto for Orchestra, which was written in 1943 and went on to a brilliant success as his best-known work; the Third Piano Concerto, which Bartók finished except for the final seventeen bars; and the Viola Concerto, which was left in a tangle of sketches. But thanks to the dedication and tedious editorial work of Tibor Serly, we are able to hear today at least a close approximation of what Bartók had in mind before death interrupted his final composition.

Serly (1901-1978) was uniquely qualified for the task. He had studied composition and harmony with Kodály and Bartók in Hungary; he had played viola in the Cincinnati, Philadelphia and NBC Orchestras; he had been a close friend of Bartók for years; he was also a friend of the violist for whom the concerto was being written, the famous William Primrose; and he had acted as associate and amanuensis for Bartók during the final years of his life.

Most accounts of Serly's efforts (including his own preface to the published score) describe nightmarish accounts of what Bartók left for him to work with: disorganized scraps of manuscript paper with a jumble of musical ideas, written in Bartók's personal, nearly indecipherable shorthand; unrelated fragments of ideas for other pieces mixed in; no indications for the sequence of musical events; no cues for instrumentation; messy corrections and alterations superimposed on the original notations, etc. However, János Kovács, in an extensive essay for the complete Bartók Edition issued on Hungaroton Records, notes that this notion is largely inaccurate and exaggerated. The sketches amounted to only thirteen pages, not a hopeless pile of scraps. Though these pages were unnumbered, establishing their order was hardly a difficult task. Aside from a few bars here and there, the complete work was written down in short score notation (in the manner of a piano reduction using from two to five staves).

As for the solo viola part, this was written out in its entirety “in a rather virtuoso style,” as Bartók described it to Primrose. “…the somber, more masculine character of your instrument exerted some influence on the general character of the work … The highest note I use is ‘A,’ but I exploit rather frequently the lower registers.” According to Kovács, Serly made few changes to the solo part, merely transferring positions and registers here and there, and adding double-stops.

Hence, with regard to musical material and form, Kovács finds Serly’s work based “authentically upon Bartók’s formulation.” Where he (and others) has reservations concerns Serly’s instrumentation. Bartók had left virtually no indications in his short score as to which instruments should play what notes. He had talked about “transparent orchestration” for this concerto, and Serly must have tried his best to carry out Bartók’s purpose. But no amanuensis can entirely replace the master, neither Süssmayr for Mozart's Requiem, nor Deryck Cooke for Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, nor Franco Alfano for Puccini's Turandot. Kovács also speculates on whether Bartók himself considered this short, twenty-minute work to be truly complete. Textures are often exceedingly bare and cry out for contrapuntal elaboration, some thematic ideas receive laconic expression, and the entire second and third movements are strangely short. The composer himself was equivocal about this issue in a conversation Serly had with him just hours before he died.

Serly worked for two years on his labor of love. The concerto was finally premiered in Minneapolis on December 2, 1949. Antal Dorati conducted the Minneapolis Symphony and the soloist was of course William Primrose.

The concerto conforms closely to classic principles of concerto construction: a sonata-form first movement with two themes of contrasting tonality and character that return in proper sequence in the recapitulation; a ternary-form middle movement, and a rondo-finale. All three movements are linked by transition passages (as in Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto).

The soloist adumbrates the first movement’s principal theme in a solo introduction, a favorite device in concerto writing ever since Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. The second theme, built around the secondary tonality of E, is by contrast sweetly lyrical, with overtones of intense yearning. The development is devoted to melodic variations of the first theme, and the recapitulation culminates in the movement’s biggest climax.

The indication Adagio religioso for the second movement is Serly’s, not Bartók’s. Serly transplanted the idea from the devotional mood of the Third Piano Concerto, which he had also edited after Bartók’s death. Over the barest orchestral support, the viola weaves a poignant, recitative-like line. Suddenly we are thrown into a flurry of whirling, buzzing effects, an example of Bartók’s highly atmospheric “night music.” Music of poetic expressiveness returns, at times strongly suggestive of the concerto’s opening theme.

The finale is in Bartók’s characteristic style of an Eastern European folk dance. Quick-note repetitions, stomping effects, motoric energy, drones and multiple stops (several notes played together) for the soloist all contribute to the excitement.

Robert Markow

This Year in History: 1949

History, Politics and Social Affairs

  • Newfoundland enters Confederation as the tenth province.
  • Canada becomes one of the twelve original members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Lester Pearson, then External Affairs Minister, signs the North Atlantic Pact in Washington, D.C. on April 4.
  • Canada joins the International Criminal Police Organization, otherwise known as Interpol.
  • 5,000 workers affiliated with the Canadian Catholic Confederation of Labor go on an illegal strike, paralyzing major asbestos mines.
  • More than 100 people die when the old Canadian-built cruise ship Noronic is destroyed by fire.
  • Nancy Hodges is named speaker of the B.C. legislature, the first woman in the Commonwealth named Speaker to a legislature.
  • Government removes all restrictions on Japanese movement and gives them the right to vote.
  • President Truman announces that the Soviet Union has exploded its first atomic bomb.

Nature, Science and Technology

  • Polio epidemic hits eastern Arctic Inuit.
  • The Trans-Canada Highway Act is signed, authorizing a two-lane highway across the entire country.
  • The building of Toronto’s subway system begins.

The Arts, Literature and Entertainment

  • Canada joins Jeunesses Musicales International, a non-profit organization that supports and promotes the careers of young musicians. Today the organization has over forty members on six continents.
  • Richard Bonnycastle, a Winnipeg printer and former fur trader, begins publishing Harlequin romance novels. By 2000, Harlequin Books would be selling over 160 million copies a year.
  • Group of Seven painter Frank Johnston dies.
  • The Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences -- a.k.a. the Massey Commission – begins its deliberations. The Massey Commission delivers its report in 1951, leading directly to the establishment of governmental programs like the National Library (1953) and the Canada Council (1957).
  • A private member's bill is introduced to ban comic books for moral (rather than economic) reasons in response to a Criminal Code amendment which prohibits any periodical depicting “the commission of crimes, real or fictitious.”
  • Saskatchewan establishes the first public arts foundation in North America.