Concerto for Orchestra (Bartók)

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Concerto for Orchestra
by Béla Bartók
The composer in 1927
CatalogueSz. 116, BB 123
Composed1943 rev. 1945
DurationAbout 38 minutes
Date1 December 1944 (1944-12-01)
LocationSymphony Hall, Boston
ConductorSerge Koussevitzky
PerformersBoston Symphony Orchestra

The Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116, BB 123, is a five-movement orchestral work composed by Béla Bartók in 1943. It is one of his best-known, most popular, and most accessible works.[1]

The score is inscribed "15 August – 8 October 1943". It was premiered on December 1, 1944, in Symphony Hall, Boston, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. It was a great success and has been regularly performed since.[1]

It is perhaps the best-known of a number of pieces that have the apparently contradictory title Concerto for Orchestra. This is in contrast to the conventional concerto form, which features a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment. Bartók said that he called the piece a concerto rather than a symphony because of the way each section of instruments is treated in a soloistic and virtuosic way.[2]


The work was written in response to a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation (run by the conductor Serge Koussevitzky) following Bartók's move to the United States from his native Hungary, which he had fled because of World War II. It has been speculated that Bartók's previous work, the String Quartet No. 6 (1939), could well have been his last were it not for this commission, which sparked a small number of other compositions, including his Sonata for Solo Violin and Piano Concerto No. 3.[1]

Bartók revised the piece in February 1945, the biggest change coming in the last movement, where he wrote a longer ending. Both versions of the ending were published, but the revised ending is almost universally performed.[citation needed]

In 1943, while Bartok was in hospital, suffering from what would later be discovered to be leukemia,he was visited by Serge Koussevitzky who wanted to inform him of the commission for him to write the work which would become this concerto.[3]


The piece is scored for the following instrumentation.[4]

Musical analysis[edit]

The piece is in five movements:

  1. Introduzione. Andante non troppoAllegro vivace
  2. Presentando le coppie. Allegro scherzando
  3. Elegia. Andante non troppo
  4. Intermezzo interrotto. Allegretto
  5. Finale. Presto

Bartók makes extensive use of classical elements in the work;[1] for instance, the first and fifth movements are in sonata-allegro form.

The work combines elements of Western art music and eastern European folk music, especially that of Hungary, and it departs from traditional tonality, often using non-traditional modes and artificial scales.[1] Bartók researched folk melodies, and their influence is felt throughout the work. For example, the second main theme of the first movement, as played by the first oboe, resembles a folk melody, with its narrow range and almost haphazard rhythm. The drone in the horns and strings also indicates folk influence (see example).[1]

The second theme of the first movement (measure 155). The harp is not shown.

I. Introduzione[edit]

The first movement, Introduzione, consists of a slow introduction, presenting the main material (consecutive intervals of fourths, scale fragments, mirror ideas etc. leading to an allegro with numerous fugato passages. The quick part is in sonata-allegro form.[2]

II. Presentando le coppie[edit]

The second movement is called "Game of Pairs" (but see note below). Its main part consists of five sections, each thematically distinct from the others, with a different pair of instruments playing together in each section.[2] In each passage, a different interval separates the pair—bassoons are a minor sixth apart, oboes are in minor thirds, clarinets in minor sevenths, flutes in fifths, and muted trumpets in major seconds.[4] The movement prominently features a side drum that taps out a rhythm at the beginning and end of this part. In fact this main part is played twice. Careful listening will reveal some small differences when it is played the second time. In between the first and second playing of this part there is a short interlude which to some listeners (including some who write cover notes for recordings of this work) suggests a kind of marriage ceremony. So one can imagine that, when the main part is played a second time, the five couples that appeared earlier are now married.

While the printed score titles the second movement "Giuoco delle coppie" or "Game of the couples", Bartók's manuscript had no title at all for this movement at the time the engraving-copy blueprint was made for the publisher. At some later date, Bartók added the words "Presentando le coppie" or "Presentation of the couples" to the manuscript and the addition of this title was included in the list of corrections to be made to the score. However, in Bartók's file blueprint the final title is found, and because it is believed to have been the composer's later thought, it is retained in the revised edition of the score.[5]

The original 1946 printed score also had an incorrect metronome marking for this movement. This was brought to light by Sir Georg Solti as he was preparing to record the piece with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1980:

When preparing ... for the recording I was determined that the tempi should be exactly as Bartók wrote and this led me to some extraordinary discoveries, chief of which was in the second movement.... The printed score gives crotchet equals 74, which is extremely slow, but I thought that I must follow what it says. When we rehearsed I could see that the musicians didn't like it at all and in the break the side drum player (who starts the movement with a solo) came to me and said "Maestro, my part is marked crotchet equals 94", which I thought must be a mistake, since none of the other parts have a tempo marking. The only way to check was to locate the manuscript and through the courtesy of the Library of Congress in Washington we obtained a copy of the relevant page, which not only clearly showed crotchet equals 94, but a tempo marking of "Allegro scherzando" (the printed score gives "Allegretto scherzando"). Furthermore Bartók headed it "Presentando le coppie" (Presentation of the couples), not "Giuoco delle coppie" (Game of the couples). I was most excited by this, because it becomes a quite different piece. The programme of the first performance in Boston clearly has the movement marked "Allegro scherzando" and the keeper of the Bartók archives was able to give us further conclusive evidence that the faster tempo must be correct. I have no doubt that thousands of performances, including my own up to now, have been given at the wrong speed![6]

Despite Solti's assertion that thousands of earlier performances had been played at the wrong speed, both of Fritz Reiner's recordings – his 1946 recording with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (the first recording of the work), as well as his 1955 recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (the same orchestra whose side drum player called the matter to Solti's attention) – had been played at the speed (crotchet equals 94) that Solti later recommended. Reiner had known Bartok since 1905, when they were fellow students at the Budapest Academy. And years later, in 1943, it was Reiner, along with Joseph Szigeti, who persuaded Serge Koussevitsky to commission Bartok to write the Concerto for Orchestra.[7]

III. Elegia[edit]

The third movement, "Elegia", is another slow movement, typical of Bartók's so-called "Night music". The movement revolves around three themes which derive primarily from the first movement.[2]

IV. Intermezzo interrotto[edit]

The fourth movement, "Intermezzo interrotto" (literally "interrupted intermezzo"), consists of a flowing melody with changing time signatures, intermixed with a theme that quotes the song "Da geh' ich zu Maxim" from Franz Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow,[8] which had recently also been referenced in the 'invasion' theme of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 "Leningrad".[9][10][11] Whether Bartók was parodying Lehár, Shostakovich, or both has been hotly disputed, without any clinching evidence either way. The theme is itself interrupted by glissandi on the trombones and woodwinds.

\new Staff \with {
  instrumentName = "Cl. I "
\relative c''' { 
  \transpose bes c'
  \set Staff.midiInstrument = #"clarinet"
  \key c \major
  \time 2/2
  \partial4 g4( f) e( d) c( bes-.) bes-. r4 \tuplet 3/2 { f'8( g f } e4) d( c) bes( a-.) a-.
  r4 \tuplet 3/2 { e'8( f e } d4) c( bes) \tuplet 3/2 { a8( bes a } g4-.) g-.
  r4 \tuplet 3/2 { d'8( e d } \tuplet 3/2 { [c8 d c] } \tuplet 3/2 { bes c bes } 
  \tuplet 3/2 { [a bes a] }   \tuplet 3/2 { g a g } f4-.) f-.\stopTextSpan r2

In this movement, the timpani are featured when the second theme is introduced, requiring 10 different pitches of the timpani over the course of 20 seconds. The general structure is "ABA–interruption–BA."[2]

V. Finale[edit]

The fifth movement, marked presto, consists of a whirling perpetuum mobile main theme competing with fugato fireworks and folk melodies. This is also in sonata-allegro form.[2]


The following are only a small selection of the numerous available recordings.

Piano reduction[edit]

In 1985, Peter Bartók, son of the composer, discovered a manuscript of a piano, two-hands reduction of the score, in the large body of material which had been left to him upon his father's death. This version had been prepared for rehearsals of a ballet interpretation of the Concerto, to be performed by the Ballet Theatre in New York. This performance never took place, and the piano score was shelved. Soon after the discovery of this manuscript, Peter Bartók asked the Hungarian pianist György Sándor to prepare the manuscript for publication and performance. The world premiere recording of this edited reduction was made by György Sándor in 1987, on CBS Masterworks: the CD also includes piano versions of the Dance Suite, Sz. 77 and Petite Suite, Sz. 105, which was adapted from some of the 44 Violin Duos.[19]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Cooper, David (1996). Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-48505-0.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Bartók, Béla. "Explanation to Concerto for Orchestra," for the Boston premiere at Symphony Hall.[full citation needed]
  3. ^ "Recording - Bartók Concerto for Orchestra". Gustavo Dudamel. Archived from the original on 2022-11-16.
  4. ^ a b Bartók, Béla (2004). Concerto for Orchestra (Score). New York: Boosey & Hawkes. ISBN 978-0-85162-189-0.
  5. ^ Peter Bartók, "Preface to the Revised Edition, 1993", in Béla Bartók, Concerto for Orchestra: Full Score, revised edition, [iii–v] (London, New York, Bonn, Sydney, Tokyo: Boosey & Hawkes, 1993). The citation is on p. iv.
  6. ^ Sir Georg Solti, Liner notes from London LP LDR 71036, Bartók Concerto for Orchestra and Dance Suite, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, recorded January 1980.
  7. ^ Morgan, Kenneth (2005). Fritz Reiner, Maestro and Martinet, p. 120. University of Illinois Press, Champaign. ISBN 0252029356.
  8. ^ "Discuss Shostakovich". BBC. 23 May 2006. Archived from the original on 19 August 2016.
  9. ^ Griffiths, Paul (February 22, 1999). "A Peacetime Hearing of the Shostakovich 'Leningrad,' Forged in War". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 March 2010.
  10. ^ Hibberd, Kristian. "Saturday 18th May 2002". London Shostakovich Orchestra. Archived from the original on 16 May 2011.
  11. ^ Mostel, Raphael. "The Merry Widow's Fling With Hitler",, 30 December 2014, accessed 11 November 2016
  12. ^ Recorded on 14 February 1954
  13. ^ Recorded on 22 October 1955
  14. ^ Recorded on 11–12/15 November 1956
  15. ^ Recorded on 1 November 1958
  16. ^ Recorded in September 1962
  17. ^ Recorded on 15–16 January 1965
  18. ^ Clements, Andrew (May 8, 2012). "Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta – review". The Guardian. Retrieved May 20, 2015.
  19. ^ György Sándor, Liner notes to the cited recording (MK 44526)

Further reading[edit]

  • Fosler-Lussier, Danielle (2000). "Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra in Postwar Hungary: A Road Not Taken." International Journal of Musicology, vol. 9, pp. 363–383.
  • French, Gilbert G. (1967). "Continuity and Discontinuity in Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra." The Music Review, vol. 28, pp. 122–134.
  • Móricz, Klára (1993-1994). "New Aspects of the Genesis of Béla Bartók's 'Concerto for Orchestra': Concepts of 'Finality' and 'Intention.'" Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, T. 35, Fasc. 1/3, pp. 181–219.
  • Parker, Beverly Lewis (1989). "Parallels between Bartók's 'Concerto for Orchestra' and Kübler-Ross's Theory about the Dying." The Musical Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 4, pp. 532–556.
  • Suchoff, Benjamin (2000). "Background and Sources of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra." International Journal of Musicology, vol. 9, pp. 339–361.

External links[edit]