Born 1881, Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary
Died 1945, New York, New York
Viola Concerto (1945)
Completed 1949 by Tibor Serly
The famous violist William Primrose commissioned Bartók’s Viola Concerto in 1945. At first the composer was unsure of his ability to write a work for the viola; he felt he didn’t understand the instrument’s capabilities and limits. He then heard Primrose perform the William Walton Viola Concerto and began to reconsider. Needing the money and in no position to turn down work, he began listening to other viola concerti, specifically the most famous of all, Berlioz’s Harold in Italy. Feeling confident he could complete the commission, he finally accepted Primrose’s offer. Time, however, was not on his side – he would die before its completion.
We of course know several instances of composers who have left sketches of unfinished works. Anyone who has ever seen the movie Amadeus is familiar with Mozart’s struggle to finish his Requiem (although Hollywood’s interpretation, or rather warped misrepresentation, of the facts, is hardly a historical account). Puccini left his operatic masterpiece, Turandot, incomplete. Both Beethoven and Mahler left behind sketches of their respective Tenth Symphonies. Some of these works were finished by students, colleagues or others; in the case of the Bartók, enter Tibor Serly.
Tibor Serly was a composer and orchestral violist who held positions with the Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and NBC Orchestras. He first met Bartók in Budapest when Serly was a student of Zoltán Kodály. When Bartók fled to the United States in 1940, he and Serly became friends. A violist and champion of the composer, Serly was the perfect choice to complete Bartók’s Viola Concerto.
Bartók worked simultaneously on the Viola Concerto and his Third Piano Concerto in the last months of his life. Stricken with leukemia and knowing the end was imminent, he wanted to finish the piano concerto so his pianist wife would have a vehicle to perform as soloist and make a living after he was gone (since they both earlier deemed his Piano Concerto No. 2 to be too difficult for her). In a 1949 article published in The New York Times, Serly recounts his last encounter with Bartók:
On the evening of September 21, 1945, when I last talked with Béla Bartók, he was lying in bed, quite ill. Nevertheless, on and around his bed were sheets of score and sketch manuscript papers. He was working feverishly to complete the scoring of the last few bars of his third piano concerto.
While discussing the concerto with him, my attention was drawn to the night table beside his bed where I noticed, underneath several half-empty medicine bottles, some additional pages of sketches, seemingly not related to the piano concerto. There was a reason for my curiosity, for it was known to several of Bartók’s friends that earlier in the year he had accepted a commission to write a concerto for viola and orchestra for William Primrose.
Pointing to these manuscript sheets, I inquired about the viola concerto. Bartók nodded wearily toward the night table, saying: “Yes, that is the viola concerto.” To my question as to whether it was completed, his reply was, “Yes and no.” He explained that while in the sketches the work was by and large finished, the details and scoring had not yet been worked out.
The following day, he was taken to the hospital, where he died September 26. The question as to which of the two works was the “last” may never be determined. Madame Bartók, who spent the entire period at his side, corroborated the fact that while he never before had worked on two major compositions at one time, on this occasion he had worked some days on the piano concerto and other days on the viola concerto.
Serly completed the last bit of the Piano Concerto No. 3 and set to work on the Viola Concerto. He wrote of the sketches that were left after Bartók’s death:
Bartók never worked in a reduced score or a piano reduction. He did not like to make piano reductions; he always refused to do that. Bartók was one of those rare composers who thought orchestrally. He tried to put down the orchestration as best he could so that it would be visible and possibly playable. He did not think in terms of just writing down the harmonic content, then the melody, and then going on from there. This manuscript is not a reduced sketch in any sense of the term. Where it was completed, every single instrumental part, every single particle has been put in. However, he did not mark the instruments; he made very few designations. If you could once decipher those parts, the orchestration was complete as it is. I had to clearly decipher the sketches so that everything went into place: skipped bars, additions, and other alterations. Now there are a few little places, for instance in the slow movement, where he knew exactly what he wanted to do, but put in only touches of orchestration. There are other parts, as in the last movement, where only the melodic line comes up, but he knew what was going on there; he had just not put it in.
Serly was fortunate to have some of the orchestration questions answered for him by Bartók himself. In a letter to Primrose, Bartók wrote, “The orchestration will be rather transparent, more transparent than in the Violin Concerto. Also the somber, more masculine character of your instrument executed some influence on the general character of the work.”
In the interim, Primrose had lost hope of ever getting his commission. That is until in 1949 when he heard rumor that the concerto was being reworked for cello. It was only then that he learned Serly had completed the concerto. He collected his commission and premiered the work in 1949 with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra) with Antal Dorati conducting. The concerto was published the following year with “Prepared for publication from the composer’s original manuscript by Tibor Serly” on the title page.
Serly’s work would be questioned after the premiere – how much was Bartók and how much was Serly? In 1963 Serly made the Bartók sketches available by donating them to the Bartók Archives. Immediately violists began comparing the sketches with the completed concerto. Everyone had an opinion on Serly’s work and his interpretation of Bartók’s remaining sketches. His work on the concerto seemed to mar his own reputation: he was, after all, an aspiring composer and his own compositions were overshadowed by his “collaboration” on the Viola Concerto, not to mention that the questions of authenticity damaged his credibility.
Initially, Bartók planned on making the Viola Concerto similar to Harold in Italy – four movements played without pause, with each movement containing a recurring theme. He instead settled on the traditional three-movement concerto format, using traditional forms, played without pause. The Viola Concerto is built around the key center A and is filled with chromaticism, traditional church modes, whole-tone and octatonic sections, various pitch collections, and folk tunes.
The first movement is in sonata form, and begins with the viola playing in a soloistic manner, accompanied only by soft pizzicato celli. The viola introduces the first of three themes found in the first movement; it is octatonic and centers around the pitch A. The movement contains a virtuosic accompanied cadenza before its recapitulation. The transition between the first and second movement is effortlessly handled by an interlude played by the principal bassoon, who then hands the spotlight over to the soloist. The second movement is in ternary form and begins in the mode of E Mixolydian. The transition to the third movement is handled by the solo viola, which leads into the 2/4 meter of the third movement, a rondo whose principal thematic material is a Scottish folk tune, perhaps a nod to the familial roots of William Primrose.
Other editions aside from the Serly exist, most notably one by Bartók’s son Peter, in collaboration with Nelson Dellamaggiore and violist Paul Neubauer (1995). Others trying to achieve a more authentic Bartók sound have attempted their own versions, among them, esteemed Hungarian violist Csaba Erdélyi. For further reading on the Viola Concerto and its further revisions, see Bartók’s Viola Concerto: The Remarkable Story of His Swansong by Donald Maurice (Oxford University Press, 2004).
In 1970 William Primrose commented on the wisdom of his commission:
When I commissioned the concerto, most people thought I had made a big mistake, including people in my manager’s office. Who on earth was going to ask me to play a concerto by Béla Bartók? I paid him what he asked—$1,000—and I played the concerto well over a hundred times for fairly respectable fees. So it was almost like getting in on the ground floor in investing in Xerox or the Polaroid camera.