Length: c. 23 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone), strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 27, 1949, Alfred Wallenstein conducting, with soloist Andor Földes
The last nine months of Béla Bartók’s time on earth were, ironically, blessed with commissions, from his publisher and from established artists. The previous nearly five years (since the Bartóks took up residence in New York in October of 1940) were mostly filled with illness, depression, and near poverty. Aside from his engagement at Columbia University from March 1941 to December 1942 on a Ditson Grant to study and process the Parry Collection of some 2600 discs of Yugoslav folk music, the findings of which he later published, there were few other means to make a living. The few duo concerts he and his wife Ditta Pásztory were able to perform in the first few months of their arrival in New York did not furnish an adequate income. No new works flowed from his mind to his pen during this two-year period. In 1942 his health began to decline, and by late 1943 the composer had been diagnosed with leukemia, the disease from which he would eventually die two years later. This news was kept from Bartók, which proved to be for the best, as his health and energy began to make a modest comeback, and with his health, his creative powers.
The winds of change began to fill Bartók’s artistic sails with commissions. Just prior to the fatal diagnosis during the summer of 1943, he was approached by the conductor of the Boston Symphony, Serge Koussevitzky, who asked for an orchestral piece in memory of his wife Natalie, resulting in the Concerto for Orchestra. The completion of this work renewed Bartók’s physical and mental strength. In March of 1944 he completed the Sonata for Solo Violin, a commission from Yehudi Menuhin. With the end of 1944 he was able to boast of a “modest living,” with his income from performance royalties and an agreement with his publisher for an advance of $1400 dollars annually. Add to this a commission from his publisher for a seventh string quartet, and one from William Primrose for a viola concerto, and we are brought back to the irony of a dying person blessed with more commissions than he could possibly live up to. That is, unless the person was Béla Bartók.
So, during the summer of 1945, with his health waning, Bartók completed the draft of his Viola Concerto, leaving it to be orchestrated. Simultaneously, he was writing his Piano Concerto No. 3 without a commission; in fact, he composed it for his wife. As he wrote to his son Peter: “…I should like to write a piano concerto for Mother. This plan has long been hanging in the air. If she could play it in three or four places then it would bring in about as much money as the one commission I refused…” He completed the Concerto through all but the orchestration of the last 17 measures; it was to be his last composition.
The first movement is characterized largely by an ambience of serenity and near weightlessness, largely as a result of ornate melodic writing in which the piano is often reduced to a single-line voice, with few moments of rhythmic independence between hands. A transparent orchestral texture forms the loom on which the piano weaves its melodic threads.
The music of the Adagio religioso is a compendium of highly emotional content, drawing upon a wealth of human feeling contrasted with an evocation of nature. Beethoven of the “Pastoral” Symphony and the Adagio of his late Quartet in A minor permeate the atmosphere of this movement. In this music, the human and natural realms meld to form a continuum of reverence and awe at the very pulsations of life.
The finale is a rondo structure bearing a theme made up of an iamb followed by a trochee rhythm (short-long, long-short). This movement is the most contrapuntal, containing fugal and imitative writing in both piano and orchestra.
— Composer Steve Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.