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Composed: 1945-1949
Length:c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes, (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum), strings, and solo viola

First LA Phil performance: January 31, 1952, Alfred Wallenstein conducting, with soloist William Primrose

During the last years of his life, Bartók lived frugally in a tiny apartment on Manhattan’s upper West Side. But hardly alone or neglected, as romantically-inclined commentators would have us believe. He had the companionship of his wife, the pianist Ditta Pásztory, and he had work, i.e., commissions from some musical heavyweights. If he could also have had his health, Bartók might have lived to the see the acclaim his music would receive by the late 1950s, to say nothing of the near-worship it inspires today, when his name is linked with those of Stravinsky and Schoenberg as one of the three inviolable giants of modern music.

Early in 1943, after some years in which the composer had every right to be depressed over the paucity of performances of his works, and the consequent lack of royalties, a turnaround began. 1943 saw the creation and successful premiere by the Boston Symphony of his Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky. In the wake of that success, several violinists – most notably, Yehudi Menuhin – suddenly “discovered” and began to play Bartók’s theretofore neglected Second Violin Concerto (written in 1938), which was enthusiastically received throughout the U.S. and in Britain.

Although leukemia was diagnosed late in ’43, his outward appearance at the time indicated the Bartókian equivalent of robust health and he was able to write to a friend, “for the next three years, a modest living is secured for us [from royalties]”. His medical bills, which were substantial even before the onset of leukemia, were being paid by ASCAP.

After the Concerto for Orchestra, he tackled commissions from Menuhin for a solo violin sonata and from William Primrose for a viola concerto. The knowledge by the music world at large that artists of such distinction as Koussevitzky, Menuhin, and Primrose were championing the composer made his stock, and spirits, rise – although happiness, like health, was always relative for this reserved, basically morose man.

He did complete the sonata for Menuhin and write his Third Piano Concerto (as a legacy for his wife), the latter lacking all but the final 17 measures, which were supplied by his friend and musical executor, Tibor Serly (1901-1978). Serly would subsequently prepare for performance and publication the far more fragmentary Viola Concerto.

On September 8, 1945, less than three weeks before his death, Bartók wrote to Primrose: “I am very glad to be able to tell you that your viola concerto is ready in draft, so that only the score has to be written, which means a purely mechanical work... If nothing happens, I can be through in 5 or 6 weeks, that is, I can send you a copy of the orchestra score in the second half of October... This work will be rather transparent, more transparent than in a violin concerto. Also, the somber, more masculine character of your instrument executed [exerted?] some influence on the general character of the work. The highest note is ‘A,’ but I exploit rather frequently the lower registers. It is conceived in a rather virtuoso style. Most probably some passages will prove to be uncomfortable or unplayable. These we will discuss later according to your observations.”

There was, of course, no “later.”

The composer must have had a good deal more of the Concerto in his mind than he had committed to paper. The “draft” that Bartók left turned out to be 15 unnumbered manuscript pages, undecipherable to all but those most familiar with his methods, and hardly easy even for them, as Serly quickly discovered. Serly next had to fill out harmonies and, finally, to orchestrate the whole, which, he noted, “presented the least difficulty, for the leading voices and contrapuntal lines upon which the background is composed were clearly indicated in the manuscript.”

What Bartók referred to as “a purely mechanical work,” which it would have been for him, required over two years for another man to execute.

In December of 1949, the Viola Concerto was performed for the first time. Primrose was the soloist and Bartók’s onetime pupil, Antal Doráti, conducted the Minneapolis Symphony.

The following is excerpted from Serly’s analysis of the Concerto:

“[It] starts with the solo viola accompanied by light rhythmic beats. The solo’s cadenza-like acceleration discloses the first thirteen bars to be an introduction, after which the theme proper starts... [The second subject, is a] “fantastically chromatic and contrapuntal theme, without parallel in any of Bartók’s other music. Scales rise, fall and intertwine. Yet... the actual effect is one of restful calm.”

“A brief interlude, Lento parlando, precedes the second movement... bringing to mind a cantor’s improvisation... A motive from the solo bassoon connects it to the second movement proper. The expressive simplicity of this music is [determined] by the A-B-A ternary song form... Bartók has succeeded [here] in exploiting all the registers of the viola... Toward the end, the motive of the first movement’s theme is again heard, accelerating into a cadenza that leads without pause into an allegretto introduction to the third movement.

“In contrast to what has preceded, the finale is a gay dance, in rondo form... more Rumanian than Hungarian in character. The solo viola moves at a breathless pace, becoming slightly slower with the folklike tune of the trio... From here on, ascending and descending chromatic scale formations recall a similar use of chromatics in the second theme of the first movement. A four-bar fortissimo tutti, followed by an upward scale passage for the viola... brings the [Concerto] to a breathtaking end.”

— Herbert Glass