Bela Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra

Sometime in college, I started developing a dislike for nationalism. Maybe it had to do with the books I was reading at the time. In high school, I read several books by Dostoyevsky; in college philosophy classes I poured over the ancient Greeks; at Indiana University I took a political science class and read Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx and Engels. Eventually these readings sent me into a left-ward direction, but more than that, they taught me to distrust political, cultural, religious and almost any other type of authoritarian institution or organization.

It just seemed that after 2,000 years of political theorizing, what it boiled down to for me was this: people seem to need to organize themselves into affiliations of like minded people so they can know what role to play, what things to believe, what protections they can expect. I tended to be drawn to socialism because it seemed that the goal was to provide for every person, which seemed closer to the beliefs I learned growing up a Catholic. But deep down, I believed that no culture or government was “the right one,” because they were all kind of arbitrary and abstract constructs based on the thinking of one or a group of men out for power. That such belief systems could lead people into wars, especially religious wars, repulsed me. Thus, I did tend to identify with underdog and revolutionary movements designed to topple these authoritarian and power-wielding structures.

This might explain my fascination with Bartok. Those of you with a linguistic background might have realized my last name is Hungarian. My father’s parents emigrated to the US around the turn of the 20th century and settled in South Bend, which was a major manufacturing center at the time. My paternal grandparents never really learned to speak English and on visits to their house, all their adult children spoke Hungarian with them. My maternal grandmother was Belgian, and her children spoke Flemish with her. It was kind of odd moving between three different cultural worlds-the third being the neutral American one at home. The one that held the most cultural attraction for me, however, was the Hungarian one, tough I did not learn to speak the language. When watching television, my father would always point out stars of Hungarian origin-the Gabors, Tony Curtis, and Ernie Kokvacs. Finally, the Hungarians just had better food-Gulyas, Paprikas, Kolac and Kifli.

And of course, as I mentioned in another of my entries, there was the music. On Sunday afternoons, a local radio station used to present “The Hungarian Hour” a bi-lingual program that played fiery gypsy and excerpts from Austro-Hungarian operettas. When I discovered the music of Bartok, based on Hungarian folk rhythms and harmonies, it was as if it switched on a circuit that had been pre-wired into the neural pathways pathways of my brain. It was a good fit.

Since Indiana University has one of the largest music schools in the world, its public radio station, WFIU, was devoted, of course, to classical music. Every Thursday evening the station aired a musical quiz show, called “The Ether Game,” whose theme music came from the second movement of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.

Begun in 1943, Concerto for Orchestra marks Bartok’s emergence from a creative slump engendered by his emigration to the United States in 1940 and subsequent diagnosis of leukemia. Fellow émigrés Serge Koussevitszky and Fritz Reiner commissioned the work, which so buoyed Bartok’s spirits that he was able to leave the hospital. The concerto was premiered in Boston in December of 1944, nine months before the composer’s death. Koussevitszky proclaimed the Concerto for Orchestra “the best orchestral work of the last 25 years.” Most musical scholars agree that it outshines any orchestral work composed since then as well.

I would place this work squarely on my top ten list as well. The reason has to do not so much for its beautiful, passionate melodies, which is one of the criterion I use. Rather I like it because it has so many interesting, intricate and creative features of which I never tire. Take the second movement, for example. Bartok entitled it “Giuoco della coppie” (the game of couples.) This movement starts out with a complicated rhythm played quietly on a snare drum. Bartok then introduces the theme played by a pair of bassoons, which contribute a kind of subterranean feeling. The bassoons play the same melody but at an interval of sixths, which create an odd harmony. He then continues this game with other pairs of instruments- the trumpets in seconds, the oboes in thirds, the flutes in fifths, and the clarinets in sevenths. You might say this is an interesting intellectual exercise, but the mood that Bartok creates thrills me on an emotional level as well.

Bartok had a fascination with trying to use music to capture complex emotions. He wrote about the sternness of the first movement, and referred to the “lugubrious death-song of the third.” Both of these movements also demonstrate an obsession he had with trying to recreate the sound of night, which you hear in mysterious little bubbling passages of flutes, high and rapid bowing of the violins, and low rumblings of basses.

But despite those somber themes, Bartok himself saw the piece as progressing from those mournful emotions to end in a “life-assertion” which you can clearly hear in the quite joy of the first part of the fourth movement and the exuberance of the breathless fifth movement. The title of the fourth movement, Interrupted Intermezzo, refers to a joke that Bartok throws in to lighten up the piece. It seems that while Bartok was convalescing and working on the concerto, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony had been premiered and was getting a lot of radio and performance play, because critics had hailed it as a modern masterpiece. Bartok interrupts his quiet and meticulous lyricism of this movement by throwing in a quote from Lehar’s The Merry Widow, which Shostakovich had also quoted. Bartok’s makes his quote lumbering and polka-like, and then lets the brass blow several “raspberries”, all of which poke fun of Shostakovich’s socialist-approved brassiness.

Bartok’s contribution to music is far reaching. After failing to make it as a concert pianist, he became a composer and ethnomusicologist. He scoured Hungary, Romania and Slovakia with an Edison cylindrical recording phonograph and with his compatriot Zoltan Kodaly, recorded over 9,000 peasant songs. Musicologists regard his six string quartets as being as revolutionary as Beethoven’s. What I find astounding however the few number of works for orchestra. He didn’t write any symphonies, for example. But as the Concerto for Orchestra shows, he had a deep understanding of the nuances of different instruments. Bartok knew exactly how to make them do his bidding.

Aside from this work, one last thing draws me to Bartok. When my father was born, the doctor signed his birth certificate with the Hungarian surname his parents had designated–Bela. When he got to school, the teachers anglicized it and so he went through life with the name Albert. But I think “Bela” has much more cache.

Download MP3s or Buy CD of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra from Amazon

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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