Mercury Orchestra | Bartók and Rózsa
Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces
Miklós Rózsa

Return to Home Page

Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116, BB 123 (1943)

Béla Bartók (1881–1945) was a giant of 20th Century music and arguably the greatest composer from Hungary. His father was headmaster at an agricultural school and an amateur musician; his mother, an amateur pianist. After his father died, mother and son settled in Bratislava, where the boy had good opportunities for musical development. Bartók enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest in 1899, graduated in 1903, and began a career as a piano soloist. In 1907, he replaced his piano teacher on the faculty of the Conservatory, where he taught until 1934.

Bartók discovered Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner in those early years and later Richard Strauss, whose music inspired him to become a serious composer. His early style was often Brahmsian, but the tone poem Kossuth returned him to his native roots. Around that time, he and Zoltan Kodály began a lifetime project studying and collecting Hungarian folk music. Rózsa called their work the “found[ing] of an authentic Hungarian nationalist style,” as opposed to that propagated by Lizst, a composer disdained by Rózsa, though admired by Bartók.
Kodály introduced Bartók to the music of Debussy, whose impressionism marked Bartók’s only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, and Four Pieces for Orchestra. After the opera’s early failure, the discouraged composer concentrated on works based on folk music until the success of The Wooden Prince (1917) and the Second String Quartet rejuvenated him. Debussy’s ultimate influence appeared when Bartók turned to neoclassicism and a startling modernism in rhythm and harmony, all without abandoning his Hungarian roots. Though often identified with atonality, he never subscribed to the rigidity of Schoenberg’s system. Even so, he found gaining critical acceptance difficult. According to his Hungarian compatriot Miklós Rózsa,

Kodály could…be tolerated, but Bartók was [considered] a madman. [In a concert of Bartók's Dance Suite, Kodály's Psalmus Hungaricus, and Dohnányi's Festival Overture] the public preferred the Dohnányi, the critics the Kodály, but few could find a good word to say for the Bartók. It was considered too eccentric and experimental. []

Dance Suite (1923) enhanced his reputation, but the failure of The Miraculous Mandarin’s 1924 premiere was a setback. Partly because his anti-fascist politics put him in conflict with the Hungarian regime and press, he started touring outside Hungary and through Europe, where his pianism and compositions enjoyed more success. That was especially true after appearances in Britain, where he was well received and respected. He also toured in the United States. In 1928, he premiered his First Piano Concerto in Cincinnati under former student Fritz Reiner and gave a recital with violinist Joseph Szigeti. The Third String Quartet earned more admiration. By the premiere of the Fourth Quartet in 1929, Bartók was a internationally respected figure.

Bartók’s 1930s compositions were more mainstream, though still cutting, inventive, and Hungarian. They included Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta; Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion; concertos for piano and violin; Divertimento for Strings; and Cantata Profana. After he quit teaching to concentrate on composing and research, his confidence was at an all-time high. On the other hand, his anti-fascism left his status in Hungary tenuous. He refused to perform in Nazi Germany, banned the broadcast of his works there and in Italy, and left his German publisher for an English one. In 1939, he returned to the U.S. and performed his Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano with Szigeti and Benny Goodman and finished his Sixth Quartet. The death of Bartók’s mother that year left him free to leave Hungary for good. After a return to the U.S. to premiere Music for Two Pianos and Percussion with his second wife, Ditta Pásztory, the Bartóks moved to New York in 1940 just after Hungary joined the Axis.
Unfortunately, Bartók’s American reputation had receded, and his biting music did not suit America’s wartime mood. Engagements dried up, and his finances were helped only slightly by projects at Columbia and Harvard. He was depressed and homesick for Hungary, the leukemia that would kill him was weakening him, and he wrote no music for three years. He made his last public appearance in 1943 when he and Ditta performed the orchestral arrangement of Music for Two Pianos and Percussion. “The tragedy was that he did not understand America, and America did not understand him,” Rózsa wrote. “He would probably have done better to go to England, where he was held in great regard.”

In 1943, Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky visited Bartók’s hospital bed at the urging of Reiner and Szigeti to commission a work in memory of the conductor’s deceased wife. Bartók did not think he would live to finish it, but the project rejuvenated him. He completed not only the Concerto for Orchestra but also the Sonata for Solo Violin. He nearly finished the Third Piano Concerto, and he left sketches for a Viola Concerto. Both were completed by Tibor Serly. Bartók lived long enough to appreciate the success of Concerto for Orchestra and the beginning of his acceptance in the U.S. before dying on September 26, 1945.

Concerto for Orchestra begins with a mysterious “Introduction,” rising from the low strings to a quavering flute and a quiet trumpet declamation. A brief Allegro is interrupted by a motif from the trombone. Winds converse and strings churn until a fugue based on the trombone motif spreads through the brass. After the earlier material returns, a brass exhortation of the fugue subject has the last word.

In “Game of Pairs” woodwind and trumpet duets play with five separate ideas, one to each section, with each pair a different interval apart. The middle section is a chorale for brass and side drum.

“Elegia” draws on the spooky ideas from the beginning of the work to create music that is both angry and funereal, with mysterious clarinet figures, wind motifs, and angry brass punctuations.

“Intermezzo Interrotto” opens with a string declaration followed by a heartfelt viola melody. A clarinet sings a mocking version of a popular contemporary tune which was also used in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. Brass chords bark, tumbling winds laugh, trombones sneer, and the orchestra resumes its frolic.

In “Finale,” a brass call unleashes what sounds like a wild Hungarian country fair, with instruments chasing each other furiously. Night seems to be descending when a biting trumpet launches a fugue. Its subject works through the orchestra as it changes shapes and colors. After a furious whirl followed by creeping night creatures of muted, snarling brass, a triumphant coda ends the work.

Miklós Rózsa and Béla Bartók met only once, in 1941 or 1942. According to Rózsa,

It was…the saddest concert I have ever been to…There was hardly any audience…Then out on the stage came this very thin, ethereal-looking figure with snow-white hair who sat down at the piano. When he was about to start playing, two young Hungarian girls wearing the phony national costume he hated so much came out and presented him with flowers and tried to make a speech in English…Bartók just stood there, embarrassed…When they had finally finished telling him how honoured the Los Angeles Hungarian community was…Bartók shoved the bouquets under the piano stool and started to play…[One critic] left in indignation during the interval: the others later wrote that Bartók had played badly (which wasn’t true) and that his works were experimental, dissonant and unpalatable. [Hardly any of] the many European composers living…in Los Angeles…came to the concert…his manager lost everything…and refused…to handle him any more. After the concert I was introduced to Bartók, who looked tired and ill. When he heard my name he said, “Oh, are you Hungarian?,” and when a friend whispered to him…that I was a composer he said, “Oh yes, you have several works published by Breitkopf & Härtel, don’t you?” and proceeded to name most of them…the small room was so full of people that it was impossible to have a conversation…I wrote a letter to him…explaining what he meant to…Hungarian music…Later, when I was in New York…I…asked whether it would be possible to visit Bartók…but he wasn’t interested in seeing anyone…[Miklós Rózsa, A Double Life]

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians devotes 32 pages to Bartók and 5 paragraphs to Rózsa. How fortunes do change.

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is also the Operations/Personnel Manager), and is a local freelancer. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener's Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony.

Read about Rózsa

Return to Home Page