Salvation (photo: Carlin Ma)

Saturday, October 5, 2024 • 7:30 p.m.

Harmonia Orchestra & Chorus
William White, conductor
Cassandra Willock, soprano


Grażyna Bacewicz (1909–1969)

Samuel Barber (1910–1981)
Prayers of Kierkegaard, Op. 30

— intermission —

Béla Bartók (1881–1945)
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116

About the Concert

Béla Bartók composed his final masterpiece in poor health and a precarious financial situation, yet he produced a work of striking power that calls upon every musician in the orchestra to display virtuoso talents. The Harmonia Chorus takes the lead in Samuel Barber’s Prayers of Kierkegaard, which draws on choral traditions from several styles and centuries. Grażina Bacewicz’s exultant, pulsating overture, composed in 1943 amid the terrors of WWII Poland, opens the program.

Program Notes

Béla Bartók
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116

Bartók was born March 25, 1881, in Nagyszentmiklos, Austria-Hungary (now Romania), and died in New York City on September 26, 1945. He composed this work between August 15 and October 8, 1943. Serge Koussevitzky conducted the Boston Symphony in the premiere on December 1, 1944. The score calls for triple woodwinds (including piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet and contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle), 2 harps and strings.

Béla Bartók and his wife Ditta arrived in New York in October 1940, having fled their native Hungary due to the war in Europe. They had hoped to earn income playing duo-piano concerts, but audiences and critics did not warm to Bartók’s unfamiliar music, so within a year their concert engagements dwindled considerably. Columbia University awarded the composer an honorary doctorate and offered him a part-time job as a musicologist, but the position was tenuous — in fact, the university’s funds ran out and only through the covert intervention of some of Bartók’s friends did his meager salary continue to be paid. Bartók stopped composing and his health was failing: his weight dropped to a mere 87 pounds, the result of previously undiagnosed leukemia. Confined to a hospital, his medical bills would have gone unpaid had ASCAP not stepped in to help.

Hoping to bolster the composer’s spirits and provide him a bit of income, two of Bartók’s fellow countrymen — violinist Joseph Szigeti and conductor Fritz Reiner — arranged (in secret) for the Koussevitzky Foundation to commission an orchestral work. Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky visited Bartók in his hospital room to deliver a check for half of the amount up front — a mere $500. Reluctantly, Bartók accepted, unsure that he could find the strength to compose music once again.

The commission did wonders for the composer's spirits, however, and his health improved enough for him to spend the summer of 1943 at New York s Saranac Lake, where he was able to complete the work. The first performance took place just over a year later, on December 1, 1944, with Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra achieved instant acclaim, sparking a renewed interest in the composer and his music. Although new commissions flooded in, Bartók was only able to complete a third piano concerto and (most of) a viola concerto before succumbing to his illness in September 1945. At the time of the work's premiere, Koussevitzky told Bartók that his Concerto for Orchestra was "the best orchestral piece of the last 25 years." It now stands as one of the undisputed masterpieces of 20th century music, a rare combination of musical substance, immediate accessibility and bravura showmanship.

Bartók was not the first to write a work under the title “Concerto for Orchestra,” a modern reimagining of the Baroque concerto grosso form. Paul Hindemith, Walter Piston and Zoltán Kodály had written such pieces in the 1920s and ’30s, and notable compositions by Michael Tippett, Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions (among others) have followed. Yet only Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra has achieved even a fraction of the fame of Bartók’s.

For the 1944 BSO premiere, Bartók wrote the following:

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 single instruments or instrumental groups in a concertante or soloistic way. 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.

As for the structure of the work, the first and fifth movements are written in a more or less regular sonata form. The development of the first fugato contains sections for brass; the exposition in the finale is somewhat extended, and its development consists of a fugue built on the last theme of the exposition. Less traditional forms are found in the second and third movements. The main part of the second movement consists of a chain of independent short sections; I used here wind instruments, which are consecutively introduced in five pairs (bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes and muted trumpets). … A kind of trio — a short chorale for brass instruments and side drum — follows, after which the five sections are repeated in a more elaborate instrumentation.

The structure of the third movement is also chain-like; three themes appear successively. These constitute the core of the movement, which is enframed by a hazy texture of rudimentary motifs. Most of the thematic material of the movement derives from the introduction of the first movement. The form of the fourth movement — Intermezzo interrotto — could be rendered by the letter symbols A–B–A–Interruption–B–A.

The fourth movement’s “interruption” is a burlesque treatment of the endlessly repeated theme from the opening movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, which Bartók heard on the radio at the time we was composing his Concerto for Orchestra. Writers have often claimed that Bartók found the Shostakovich work banal and was thus parodying it, but Bartók's son Peter later insisted that the melody had reminded his father of a Viennese cabaret tune, and it was this cabaret song to which Bartók referred.

The overall shape of the work is palindromic, the large-scale outer movements bookending the more lighthearted second and fourth movements, which themselves surround the highly atmospheric central slow movement. Just as Bartók builds the third movement out of musical material from the slow, quiet opening of the first, other such allusions and cross-references abound throughout the Concerto.

The finale opens with a declamatory horn statement marked by an opening octave leap. Scurrying string passages then quicken the tempo, interrupted by Hungarian dance tunes, until bassoons attempt to begin a fugue based on the opening horn motive. Instead, a tranquil woodwind interlude ensues, leading to another energetic string passage over which trumpets introduce a heroic new theme, which horns then play in inverted form; this melody undergoes a fugato development, building to a slightly slower fugal section initially dominated by strings. Material from the opening of the movement then returns, ushering the work to its thrilling conclusion.

— Jeff Eldridge