Viola Concerto (Bartók)

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Viola Concerto
by Béla Bartók
William primrose.jpg
The violist William Primrose who commissioned and premiered the concerto
CatalogueSz. 120, BB 128
Composed1945 (1945)
DedicationWilliam Primrose
PerformedDecember 2, 1949 (1949-12-02): Minneapolis

The Viola Concerto in A minor, Sz. 120, BB 128 (also known as Concerto for Viola and Orchestra) was one of the last pieces written by Béla Bartók. He began composing his viola concerto while living in Saranac Lake, New York, in July 1945. The piece was commissioned by William Primrose, a respected violist who knew that Bartók could provide a challenging piece for him to perform. He said that Bartók should not "feel in any way proscribed by the apparent technical limitations of the instrument";[1] Bartók, though, was suffering from the terminal stages of leukemia when he began writing the viola concerto and left only sketches at the time of his death.


Primrose asked Bartók to write the concerto in the winter of 1944.[2] There are several letters between them regarding the piece. In one from September 8, 1945, Bartók claims that he is nearly done with it and only has the orchestration to complete. The sketches however show that this was not truly the case. When Bartók died, the piece was finished by his close friend Tibor Serly in 1949.[3] A first revision was made by Bartók's son Peter and Paul Neubauer in 1995, and it was revised once more by Csaba Erdélyi. The concerto was premiered on December 2, 1949, by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra with Antal Doráti conducting and Primrose as violist.[4] Another revision has been prepared by the violist Tabea Zimmermann.[5]


The concerto has three movements, and Bartók states in a letter dated August 5, 1945 that the general concept is, "a serious Allegro, a Scherzo, a (rather short) slow movement, and a finale beginning Allegretto and developing the tempo to an Allegro molto. Each movement, or at least 3 of them will, [be] preceded by a (short) recurring introduction (mostly solo for the viola), a kind of ritornello."[6] (The aforementioned idea of a thematic introduction to each movement was also used in Bartók's String Quartet no. 6 Sz. 114.) The first movement is in a loose sonata form. The slow second movement is significantly shorter, and closes with a very short scherzo movement that is an attacca right into the third movement. The time stamps, as seen in Bartók's manuscript, state that the first movement should be 10’20", the second 5’10" and the third 4’45".

The first and third movements of the concerto is said to loosely contain a phrase that is reminiscent of the Scottish tune "Gin a Body Meet a Body, Colmin' Thro' the Rye."[7] This is probably done in honor of William Primrose's heritage.[8]


Bartók's manuscript only specifies: flute, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings.

Tibor Serly's edition is orchestrated for: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B, 2 bassoons, 3 horns in F, 3 trumpets in B, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings.

Peter Bartók and Paul Neubauer's edition is orchestrated for: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes (2nd doubling cor anglais), 2 clarinets in B, 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in B, tenor trombone, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (2), strings.


There are some large discrepancies between the different editions of this concerto, due to little being known about Bartók's intentions. Some are as simple as the metronome markings for each movement. Each editor also had very different interpretations of fingerings for the concerto. One edition suggests beginning the first movement on the open A string, while others suggest beginning on the D string. The Peter Bartók edition, especially, has interesting fingerings because Paul Neubauer edited most of the viola part.[9]

Many bowings also differ between different editions, some of them inserted specifically to accent certain rhythms and high notes, such as in mm. 8-10 in the Tibor Serly edition, where William Primrose included some bowing suggestions to emphasize the syncopation of the line.[10]

Overall, there are a significant amount of surface level discrepancies such as bowings, fingerings and dynamics. However, some editions contain more changes than editor markings; in the Peter Bartók revision there are measures that are added, completely missing or with note changes, which can cause several discrepancies in the performance of the piece.

Omissions and amendments between editions[edit]

Peter Bartók explains, "It became clear that we could not merely compare the printed score with the final manuscript prepared from my father’s sketches by Tibor Serly, and discover engraving errors, but we would have to start with the sketch itself."[11]

The first of the note changes begins in measure 44 on beat two, where there is an added D as a double stop against a D. In the next measure, the first beat is transposed down an octave, probably to facilitate performance. Everything remains consistent until measure 54. At this point Tibor Serly has the viola resting, and yet Peter Bartók has actually included two measure of a melody to the soloists’ line. The most significant changes have yet to appear. Tibor Serly's edition places measure 67 as a 6
bar, but Peter Bartók splits it into a 4
bar plus a 3
bar, and he actually adds a group of triplets. It is now clear why an orchestra must be absolutely certain which edition they are performing and ensure everyone has the same parts. This trend of alterations continues as Peter Bartók adds octave displacements, and even omits what is measure 74 in the Tibor Serly score.[12]

Arrangement as a Cello Concerto[edit]

Tibor Serly also arranged the work as a Cello Concerto. After the completion, a gathering of friends of Bartók expressed an eight-to-six preference for the cello adaption over the original.[13]

Cellist János Starker was the first to play and record the transcribed version.[13]


  • Béla Bartók, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Compact disc. Hong-Mei Xiao, HNH International Ltd, 1998. Conductor János Kovács and soloist Hong-Mei Xiao playing both the Peter Bartók and the original Tibor Serly. This CD will be useful for comparing the two versions.

Other recordings:

  • Béla Bartók, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra; William Primrose; Otto Klemperer conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra; Live recording, Amsterdam, 10 January 1951; Archiphon, 1992.
  • Béla Bartók, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Yuri Bashmet, soloist and Pierre Boulez conducting. Compact disc. Hong-Mei Xiao: HNH International Ltd, 1998.
  • Béla Bartók, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Rivka Golani, soloist and Andras Ligeti conducting the Budapest Symphony Orchestra. Compact disc. Conifer CDCF-189, 1990.
  • Béla Bartók, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra; Yehudi Menuhin; Antal Dorati conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra; EMI, 1991.
  • Bartók, Béla. Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Hong-Mei Xiao. János Kovács. HNH International Ltd. 1998. Compact disc.
  • Bartók, Béla. Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Yuri Bashmet. Pierre Boulez. Deutsche Grammophon GmbH. 2008. Compact disc.
  • Bartók, Béla. Viola Concerto. Pinchas Zukerman. Leonard Slatkin. BMG Music. 1991. Compact disc.
  • Bartók, Béla. Viola Concerto. (The Erdélyi restoration and orchestration - world premiere recording) Csaba Erdélyi. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei. Concordance. 2002. Compact disc.
  • Béla Bartók, Viola Concerto. Yo-Yo Ma (on a vertical viola), tracks 5-6-7 on The New York Album, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Zinman, Sony Classical, 1993. Compact disc.
  • Béla Bartók, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra; Kim Kashkashian; Peter Eötvös conducting the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra; ECM-Records, 2000.

As a cello concerto:


  1. ^ Béla Bartók, Viola Concerto: Facsimile Edition of the Autograph Draft, Nelson Dellamaggiore, editor (Tampa: Rinaldi Printing, 1995): 24.
  2. ^ Peter, Bartók: "The Principal Theme of Béla Bartók’s Viola Concerto," Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae T. 35 (1993-1994): 47.
  3. ^ Béla Bartók: Viola Concerto, ed. by Tibor Serly (England: Boosey & Hawkes, 1949), 1.
  4. ^ Tibor Serly (December 11, 1949). "Story of a Concerto: Bartók's Last Work". The New York Times.
  5. ^ Liljeroos, Mats (6 February 2022). "Virtuos Bartók à la Zimmermann". Hufvudstadsbladet (in Swedish). Helsingfors. p. 33.
  6. ^ Nelson Dellamaggiore, Facsimile Edition, 25.
  7. ^ Bartók, "The Principal Theme," 47.
  8. ^ Bartók, "The Principal Theme," 46.
  9. ^ Béla Bartók, Viola Concerto, ed. by Paul Neubauer (USA: Boosey & Hawkes, 2003), 1.
  10. ^ Tibor Serly, 1.
  11. ^ Bartók, "The Principal Theme," 45.
  12. ^ Béla Bartók, Viola Concerto, ed. by Paul Neubauer (USA: Boosey & Hawkes, 2003), 3.
  13. ^ a b Musicweb International Review, 2015.


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  • Bartók, Béla. Viola Concerto: Facsimile Edition of the Autograph Draft., edited by Nelson Dellamaggiore. Tampa: Rinaldi Printing, 1995.
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