Program note archive: Bartok Viola Concerto

Béla Bartók- Concerto for Viola (1945) completed by Tibor Serly

William Primrose, maybe the most important violist of modern times, asked the then-ailing Bartók to write a concerto for his use in 1945. Since emigrating from Hungary to the US in 1940, Bartók had endured a period of terrible neglect, poverty and homesickness. Howard Hanson, the reactionary and xenophobic president of the Eastman School of Music, had turned away Bartók’s application for a teaching position in spite of his reputation as possibly the most important living composer and ethnomusicologist of his day.

Word of Bartók’s desperate situation finally reached Serge Koussevitsky, the visionary music director of the  Boston  Symphony, who did as much as any conductor in the 20th Century to commission and premiere important new works. In 1942, upon hearing that Bartók was both ill and destitute, Koussevitsky doubted Bartok would be up to the strain of writing a major work, but also knew that Bartók would not accept charity. Koussevitsky  commissioned  Bartók to write a showpiece for the Boston Symphony, and Bartók was so overjoyed at the opportunity that he quickly forgot his problems and embarked on the writing of his Concerto for Orchestra, a joyous and brilliant piece universally acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of the 20th Century.

After this, Bartók’s creative powers returned to full strength, even as his body started to fail. Commissions began to pour in, and Bartók turned to work on a 3rd Piano Concerto, a Sonata for Solo Violin and the Viola Concerto. By 1945, his health was rapidly failing, and it became clear while working on the 3rd Piano Concerto and the Viola Concerto that he would not finish either work. Bartók hoped the Piano Concerto would provide a source of income for his wife, the pianist for whom it was written, and so made a great push to complete the work before succumbing to leukemia. Bartók entrusted the completion of the Viola Concerto to his friend and former pupil Tibor Serly, who also completed the 3rd Piano Concerto.

Like the Concerto for Orchestra and the last Piano Concerto, the Viola Concerto is a profoundly lyrical, spiritual and life affirming work. In those sad, final years Bartók found within himself a capacity for expressing warmth and joy that listeners continue to marvel at 50 years later. The first movement is the most complete and fully developed and shows Bartók at the height of his musical powers. The lyrical second movement is deeply spiritual in feeling, but the folk-music inspired fire of the finale is no less full of life. Sadly, the finale shows the most evidence of Serly’s hand- in spite of the richly promising musical material the movement is less completely developed that one would expect in a mature work of the master. Still a brilliant conclusion to the greatest work in the viola repertoire, its slightly weakened musical finish is a poignant reminder of the fate of its creator, who did not live to complete it or hear it performed.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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