Learning Bartok Concerto for Orchestra

Last week the Columbus Symphony performed Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, which has been a staple of the orchestral repertoire since it was premiered on December 1, 1944 in Boston Symphony Hall by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky.

Also on the program was Johannes Brahms 1st Piano Concerto with Peter Serkin soloing, and Mozart's Marriage of Figaro Overture. Stephan Sanderling conducted. His interpretation of the Bartok was appropriately vivid and dramatic.

I have played the Bartok many times in my orchestral career. However, it never fails to amaze me musically, orchestrally and technically. (If you are interested in another woodwind player's perspective on the same music, check my colleague Betsy Sturdevant's post Bassoon Blog- Mozart, Brahms and Bartok.)

To prepare for the concert, I began by refreshing my memory of the piece by listening to a classic performance of it by the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner. Though recorded in the 50's, Reiner's version is still considered definitive.

Musically, I was again struck by the piece's "modern" sound. I wrote on Facebook, "It's alternately depressing, sardonic, mocking, terrifying and frenetic with occasional grandeur, albeit a bit sardonic grandeur. To keep it in perspective, I remember it was written in the throes of WWII, 1943."

At the end of our rehearsals of the piece with Maestro Sanderling, he recounted a story I had never heard, which he had learned from Bartok's son, Peter. Sanderling told us that, in 1943, Bartok and his wife arranged for their 19 year old 2nd son, Peter, to travel alone by ship to the US.

According to Sanderling's story, the Bartoks heard news that the ship had sunk, and presumed their son dead. It was during this period that Concerto for Orchestra was composed. The bitter despair the composer must have felt may have colored the piece even more than the chaos of the World War II. The story ends somewhat happily; after the Bartoks traveled to NYC, the son and father met by accident on the subway. Unfortunately, Bela Bartok died a year later of leukemia.

Technically, even though I've heard and played the piece many times, it never gets any easier to count the part or the rests. Bartok composed using apparently random rhythms and phrases. Even the rests are hard to count! In the excerpt photo below of the 2nd movement, you can see how the rests are nearly always 1 + ? measures, which can easily be confused, especially which swabbing out or changing clarinets.

(Remember, you can click on the photo to enlarge it in another window.)

Bartok Concerto for Orchestra Movt. 2

Bartok Concerto for Orchestra Movt. 2

The next excerpt shows the deceptively tricky ending of the 2nd movement, when the 1st clarinet plays a high d, with 16th notes in a dramatic diminuendo. I used an alternate fingering for this, which I rarely do, and it worked quite well. It allows you to bite a bit to ensure control and diminuendo, though it was a bit resistant for the articulation. You can see the fingering marked below the excerpt.

Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, Movt. 2 end

Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, Movt. 2 end

The next excerpt shows a solo in the first movement which has incorrect rhythms in the parts. A recent edition, published by Peter Bartok after he finally regained the rights over his fathers music, has corrections, some of which did not make it into older publications of the orchestral parts. As the clarinet line descends, note the change from quarter/eighth to eighth/quarter.

This solo is also an example of the uneasy, pleading lyricism found through out this piece.

Bartok Concert for orchestra, clarinet part Mvt 1

Bartok Concert for orchestra, clarinet part Mvt 1

In the haunting third movement, there is one excerpt which I play on the Bb rather than A as it was written, since it's much easier on Bb.

Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, clarinet, 3rd mvt.

Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, clarinet, 3rd mvt.

Now we have the famous clarinet solo in the section of the 4th movement which mocks Shostakovich's 7th symphony main theme. Bartok may have been depressed, but not without bitter humor. The difficulty of this solo is many fold. First the apparently simple 4/4 rhythm in the first measure is not so simple. The player must know the uneven rhythm accompanying in the strings to be able to fit in with the orchestra. Then there is the difficult triplets descending over the break, in a rapid accelerando. Finally, the quintuplet articulated descending chromatic scale, which must be played at about 120, no easy task for the single tonguing clarinetist. I was able to double tongue the 2nd and 3rd beats, though even that coordination was quite difficult.

Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, clarinet, mvt 4

Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, clarinet, mvt 4

Finally, a an excerpt from the rowdy last movement, showing some of the more difficult 16th note passages. The first excerpt on the page must be played with extremely rhythmic fingers, since the awkward changes in direction can easily cause confusion among the other parts playing along.

Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, clarinet, 5th mvt.

Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, clarinet, 5th mvt.

All in all, a fun and challenging week.

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2 comments for “Learning Bartok Concerto for Orchestra

  1. Stephen Weininger
    February 26, 2011 at

    I enjoyed the post about learning the Concerto for Orchestra enormously. My wife (who is a professional musician) and I are in a program for retired people at Harvard in which members take and teach courses. We’re currently giving a course on musical form and are considering using the Concerto, and I ran across this post while searching the web for material. The story about Peter Bartok’s trip to the US was very moving, and your description of what’s involved in preparing to play the CfO awe-inspiring. Thanks for the post and for your efforts in bringing great music to the (not always appreciative) public.

    • February 28, 2011 at

      Hi Stephen, thanks so much for your kind words. They are greatly appreciated. Please check back in awhile, as I plan to expand this site greatly, with, hopefully, many more posts on how to practice specific pieces.

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