Bartok's Violin Concerto

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Monday, March 23, 2020

Any composer who sets out to write a violin concerto knows that his or her new work will be measured against the famous concertos of the past. But in the fall of 1936, when the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok decided to write a violin concerto, he asked his publisher to send him some recent work of his contemporaries. After seeing what Karol Szymanowski, Kurt Weill, and Alban Berg had accomplished in the form, Bartok set to work, with much input from his violinist friend, Zoltan Szekely, for whom the new concerto was being written. Bartok was in America when Szekely premiered his Concerto with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Willem Mengelberg. It was only in America, some years later, in 1943, that Bartok first heard his Concerto at a New York Philharmonic concert. He wrote, "I was most happy that there is nothing WRONG with the scoring. Nothing needs to be changed, even though orchestral accompaniment of the violin is a very delicate business." If Bartok was happy with the scoring, he wasn't very pleased with one New York music critic, who wrote that he didn't think the new work would ever displace the great violin concertos of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, or Brahms. "How is it possible to write such an idiotic thing," commented Bartok. "What fool fit for a madhouse would want to displace these works with his own?"