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Composed: 1943

Length: c. 35 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum [without snares], tam-tam, triangle), 2 harps, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 28, 1946, Alfred Wallenstein conducting

About this Piece

At the beginning of 1943, while Béla Bartók was being treated in a New York hospital, he was visited by Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, who—at the behest of two of Bartók’s fellow Hungarian expatriates, violinist Joseph Szigeti and conductor Fritz Reiner—came with a commission for a work in memory of his recently deceased wife, Natalie Koussevitzky. Bartók accepted and produced the Concerto for Orchestra, his last completed work save for the Sonata for Solo Violin of 1944.

It was shortly after the meeting with Koussevitzky that leukemia, which was to prove fatal two years hence, was diagnosed; but the composer was kept in the dark. A wise decision, as it turned out, since during the subsequent months, he regained strength and, obviously, creativity.

The score was written in only two months at the health resort of Saranac Lake in upstate New York and completed on October 8, 1943. The first performance, an enormous success with audience and critics, was given by the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky on December 1, 1944.

The composer, in Boston for the premiere with his wife, Ditta Pásztory, reported: “We went there for the rehearsals and performances—after having obtained the grudgingly granted permission of my doctor for this trip.... The performance was excellent. Koussevitzky says it is the ‘best orchestra piece of the last 25 years’ (including the works of his idol, Shostakovich!).”

Bartók provided the following brief program note for the occasion.

“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-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertant or soloistic manner. The ‘virtuoso’ treatment appears, for instance, in the fugato sections of the development of the first movement (brass instruments), or in the perpetuum mobile-like passage of the principal theme in the last movement (strings), and especially in the second movement, in which pairs of instruments consecutively appear with brilliant passages.”

The Concerto for Orchestra follows the palindromic form Bartók employed in his Fourth String Quartet (1928), in which the core slow middle movement is surrounded by two scherzos, which are in turn surrounded by two larger movements.

Not least among the many attractions of this, the composer’s most popular orchestral work, is his splendidly achieved end of allowing each section of his hundred-headed virtuoso to shine and, finally, to exhibit his virtuosity in a spectacularly complex fugue (in the finale’s development), prior to the delectably rabble-rousing conclusion. —Excerpted from a program note by Herbert Glass