Bartók and his wife fled their native Hungary and moved to New York in 1940, shortly after he composed his last work in Europe, the Sixth String Quartet. He never felt comfortable in the United States and composed nothing at all for three years.
The money he received from royalties, occasional performances, and a research fellowship at Columbia University hardly provided enough to live on. To make matters worse, he contracted leukemia. The first symptoms appeared in 1940, but he did not receive a definitive diagnosis until 1944.
As he got sicker and less able to work, his friends became concerned, but he refused to accept charity. Two of them, violinist Joseph Szigeti and conductor Fritz Reiner, suggested to Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitsky, much wealthier than either of them, that something should be done for Bartók.
Koussevitsky went to Bartók’s hospital room and offered him a commission for any kind of orchestral work he wanted to compose. The emaciated Bartók protested that he was in no condition to write a new piece. Koussevitsky told him he could write it when he felt better and Bartók, with some apparent reluctance, said he’d be glad to.
When Koussevitsky took out his checkbook to pay the commission, Bartók protested that he could not accept the money until he finished the work. The quick thinking Koussevitsky replied that commissions required that half the payment be made up front, and only the other half on completion. Now, of course, Bartók had no choice. He had to write something.
At the final rehearsal before the premiere performance of Concerto for Orchestra on December 1, 1944, Koussevitsky urged Bartók not to hesitate if he had any comments. Bartók took him up on it every few measures for twenty minutes.
Koussevitsky then suggested that perhaps it would be more efficient if the composer simply took notes. Bartók wrote feverishly until the orchestra had completed the last movement.
He seemed full of pep as he and the very tired conductor went to Koussevitsky’s dressing room to talk it over. When they finally came back out, after a longer than usual rehearsal break, Koussevitsky had a spring in his step and Bartók shuffled back without energy. Kousssevitsky mounted the podium and told the orchestra, “Gentlemen, Mr. Bartók agrees with everything.”
Like all of his mature works, Bartók’s new orchestral work does not follow traditional expectations. Its opening movement has a slow introduction, like so many Classical symphonies, but otherwise, it has only isolated moments of symphonic density.
It more nearly resembles a classical serenade and has passages that demand soloistic virtuosity from every section of the orchestra. The latter feature certainly justifies the title.
The mainly joyful mood of the work gave Bartók a couple of chances to express his political and artistic views. He heard, and disliked, a radio broadcast of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, and responded in his fourth movement, Intermezzo interrotto (Interrupted intermezzo).
The march from Shostakovich’s symphony, partly borrowed from Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow, interrupts the main musical idea. The whole orchestra grimaces, especially trombones. The exposed bass trombone glissando is one of the most notoriously awkward passages in the entire orchestral repertoire.
The fifth movement shows Bartók’s lifelong preoccupation with folk music. It includes not only the central European folk music he had studied so diligently, but also some tunes, played by trumpets, that sound very African-American. Perhaps in the evocation of American music, Bartók intended to thank the United States for it’s hospitality and victorious advance against Nazi Germany.