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FastNotes

  • Battling the final stages of leukemia, Bartók struggled to complete his Piano Concerto No. 3, a gift for his wife. He completed all but the orchestration of the last 17 bars.

  • The first movement is characterized by serenity and near weightlessness: the piano weaves its melodic threads over a transparent orchestral texture.

  • The music of the slow movement draws on a wealth of human feeling contrasted with an evocation of nature.

  • The finale, a rondo with a theme built on a short-long, long-short rhythm, is the most contrapuntal movement, containing fugal and imitative writing in both piano and orchestra.


Composed: 1945
Length: c. 25 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 Foldes

From 1945, regarding the final days of the composer’s life, we have these words by György Sándor, his friend, pupil, and an outstanding interpreter of his piano music: “I phoned Bartók in New York. Ditta, his wife… picked up the receiver. Her voice barely audible, she told me that the master was unwell and couldn’t come to the phone… I dashed over to his flat. On arriving at his home on 57th street an ambulance was there already. While they were preparing to take him to nearby West Side Hospital he softly said, ‘I am very sick’… Then he asked me, a little more loudly: ‘Do you have some spare time?’ I answered that I did. ‘Then I’ll ask a favor. Here are the second proofs of my Concerto for Orchestra. I have begun to correct the mistakes. But I have no strength…’ I promised I would make the necessary corrections… The work amounted to transcribing into the proofs corrections which Bartók had already notated in the margins.”

Sándor visited him several times in the hospital, as did Ditta. Leukemia had been diagnosed, and chances of survival were slight… Sándor further relates: “After having finished proofing the Concerto for Orchestra, I hastened again to the hospital… but I did not see him again. He died on the following day.” [September 26, 1945]

Regarding the present concerto, Ditta wrote: “Some months before the end of 1945 we sought to take a vacation as his doctors had wished. We traveled to Saranac Lake [in upstate New York] where we stayed in a small cottage. Béla found peace there and worked… on the Third Piano Concerto… He once told Péter [their son] that he was writing [it] for me, and wanted to present it to me on my birthday, October 31…

“After about 10 August the situation began to get worse: he felt increasingly unwell and began to run a temperature… we had returned to our New York flat on the last day of August, and I immediately contacted his doctor. During the day he lay fully dressed on his bed for hours, walked around a little in the flat, and worked, too, at his desk. But it did not last long… finally he was taken to the hospital.”

The Third Concerto is among the composer’s most lucid and lyrical creations, its graciousness and liquid flow in contrast to the harshness and percussive clamor of its two predecessor piano concertos, dating from 1926 and 1931, both of which the composer wrote for his own performance. Simplicity of an almost Classical grace, refracted through a 20th-century sensibility, marks the Third as “Ditta’s concerto” – written in dire circumstances, yet seemingly by a man at peace.

Bartók had little else to leave Ditta. She did not, however, play the piano in public for many years after her husband’s death. The first performance of the Third Concerto was thus given by György Sándor, with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, on February 8, 1946. Ditta would finally play it when she returned to the concert platform during the early 1960s.

The heart and soul of the concerto is the slow movement: one of those evocative nocturnes that crops up throughout Bartók’s mature work, here embellished with a beguiling collection of bird-calls, based, we are told, on sounds he recorded during the previous year when the Bartóks briefly resided at a rustic retreat in Asheville, North Carolina.

There is a further suggestion of autobiography in this movement, signifying a brief period of recovery from illness, or wishful thinking: the opening measures are so arranged as to form a slightly skewed quotation from the slow movement of Beethoven’s A-minor String Quartet, Op. 132, subtitled (in Beethoven) Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit – “Sacred song of thanksgiving to the deity from a convalescent.” Beethoven did recover from his illness; Bartók, of course, did not.

The only part of the concerto left incomplete at the composer’s death was the orchestration of the final 17 measures, a task accomplished by Tibor Serly, another of the composer’s friends and pupils.

-- Herbert Glass