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BÉLA BARTÓK (1881-1945)

Concerto for Orchestra, BB 123 (1943, rev. 1945)

Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai

I. Introduzione: Andante non troppo–Allegro vivace

II. Giuoco delle coppie: Allegretto scherzando

III. Elegia: Andante non troppo

IV. Intermezzo Interrotto: Allegretto

V. Finale: Pesante–Presto


Composed during wartime, Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra of 1943 (written in the United States) frames the human condition of Hungary and Hawaiʻi through the lens of the Second World War. With the Kingdom of Hungary, a member of the Axis powers, the Hungarian forces suffered greatly in the 1943 Battle of Stalingrad. Following two years of warfare with the Soviets, Hungary's leadership began negotiations for peace with the United States and the United Kingdom. Sensing Hungary's betrayal, Hitler launched Operation Margarethe, invading the country.


After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the territory of Hawaiʻi fell under martial law. By March 1943, civil liberties were tightened and heavily aimed at the Japanese population. However, the might of military rule was felt by all Hawaiʻi residents. In 1944, serving as a military police officer, Duke Kahanamoku arrested Lloyd C. Duncan (a civilian shipbuilder) for a brawl with two Marines. Tried and convicted by an army tribunal, Duncan appealed the ruling, going as far as the U.S. Supreme Court in 1946, which ruled the trial by tribunal unconstitutional.



In 1905, Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodály embarked on an eight-year journey collecting and cataloging Hungarian folk music, "discovering" its pure form, unfiltered by the Germanic "Hungarian" idioms perpetuated through Liszt and Brahms. The result was music that was extraordinarily rich in complexity, with rhythm and pitch encoded to the inflections of the Hungarian language. The discovery forever changed Bartók's music, channeling his Hungarian DNA into all his music until his final work, the Concerto for Orchestra. Battling unchecked leukemia with financial strain in 1943, Serge Koussevitzky commissioned Bartók for the Concerto, a challenge and gift-in-disguise to lift the composer’s spirits. Bartók accepted, exited the hospital, and delivered the five-movement work two months later. Koussevitzky premiered the work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on December 1, 1944.


Beyond the Music: The first Hawaiʻi performance of Bartók's "Concerto for Orchestra" was given by the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra on December 6, 1959, under Music Director George Barati. This performance of Bartók's music was better received than the 1955 performance of his "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra," to which patrons stormed out of their seats. The hostile reaction was followed up by "The Advertiser," publishing eight letters defending or chastising the music of Bartók. Barati, a Hungarian, shared his brief meeting with the composer in the paper: "In 1940, when I was teaching and studying in Princeton, Bartók was invited to perform a recital. I was to be his page-turner. He was told this in New York, that there would be a fellow-Hungarian to help him…he was inclined to be almost fearful, and the presence of even one "friend," it hoped, would make him feel more comfortable. I was introduced to him as the Hungarian he had heard so much about. And I greeted him, naturally, in Hungarian. He opened his eyes wide in total happy surprise and said, "But you speak Hungarian!"



"The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one...The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertant or soloistic manner. The 'virtuoso' treatment appears, for instance, in the fugato sections of the development of the first movement (brass instruments), or in the perpetuum mobile-like passage of the principal theme in the last movement (strings), and especially in the second movement, in which pairs of instruments consecutively appear with brilliant passages." – Béla Bartók


Beyond the Music: As much as Bartók's musical vocabulary channels the dissonant voice of modernism, this music is guided by the past. The first and last movements are in the classical Mozartian sonata structure though spoken with the irregular rhythms of the Hungarian language paired with the ancient modality of folk music. The opening snare drum solo of the second movement heralds a Renaissance fare of courtly dances, a Shakespearean game for couples (duets). The slow Elegy unifies the work in the Romantic style of reprising and transforming themes (taken from the first movement). The irregular rhythms of the Intermezzo bring interruptions (trombone glissandos) with the time-honored tradition of the musical jest (or musical robbery), the raspberry quotation in the clarinet for Shostakovich's Symphony No.7 "Leningrad." The Finale's explosive fugal nod to the music of Bach, the sparkle of Debussy, and brassiness of Gershwin, frame a musical homage to the past told with the language of its time. If there is a metaphor in this music (and of this entire Hungarian program) relevant to a Honolulu audience in the year 2023, perhaps it resides in the kindred struggles of race and politics in the Kingdoms of Hungary and Hawaiʻi, the six degrees of separation that tie Hawaiʻi's musical history to countries more than 7800 miles away, or in the return to one's roots guided by the ancestors, as channeled through the pule (prayer) to Nā ʻaumākua (Gods) by David Malo:


Nā ʻaumākua iā ka hinakua iā ka hinaʻalo

Ancestors who stand at our back and front


E hōmai ka maopopo pono

Grant us understanding


The 36-minute score calls for three flutes, piccolo, three oboes, English horn, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, bass drum, snare drum, two harps, and strings.


Béla Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Kingdom of Hungary, on March 25, 1881, and died in New York City on September 26, 1945.

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