Bartok's Viola Concerto: The Remarkable Story of His Swansong

Bartok's Viola Concerto: The Remarkable Story of His Swansong

Bartok's Viola Concerto: The Remarkable Story of His Swansong

Bartok's Viola Concerto: The Remarkable Story of His Swansong


When Bela Bartok died in September of 1945, he left a partially completed viola concerto commissioned by the virtuoso violist William Primrose. Yet, while no definitive version of the work exists, this concerto has become arguably the most-performed viola concerto in the world. The story of how the concerto came to be, from its commissioning by Primrose to its first performance to the several completions that are performed today is told here in Bartok's Viola Concerto:The Remarkable Story of His Swansong. After Bartok's death, his family asked the composer's friend Tibor Serly to look over the sketches of the concerto and to prepare it for publication. While a draft was ready, it took Serly years to assemble the sketches into a complete piece. In 1949, Primrose finally unveiled it, at a premiere performance with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. For almost half a century, the Serly version enjoyed great popularity among the viola community, even while it faced charges of inauthenticity. In the 1990s, several revisions appeared and, in 1995, the composer's son, Peter Bartok, released a revision, opening the way or an intensified debate on the authenticity of the multiple versions. This debate continues as violists and Bartok scholars seek the definitive version of this final work of Hungary's greatest composer. Bartok's Viola Concerto tells the story of the genesis and completion of Bartok's viola concerto, its reception over the second half of the twentieth century, its revisions, and future possibilities.


Since the Bartók Viola Concerto first appeared in Tibor Serly's realization in 1949 it has remained a controversial work, with opinions that range from its outright dismissal as a work of Bartók to its being a fine but incomplete example of his final period.

The inaccessibility of the manuscript sketches over the decades since 1945 prolonged the uncertainty about the authenticity of the work. In the meantime much of the general musical world came to accept the work as being genuinely that of the composer. It has become one of the most performed and recorded viola concertos and is standard repertoire for auditions for the world's leading orchestras and competitions. As time passes, Tibor Serly's involvement becomes less well known, and to many concertgoers his name would now mean little, if anything.

While for most of the musical community the work has established its place in history, there have been a significant number of musicians and musicologists, especially Bartók scholars, who have become more and more convinced that the work, as it has become known, is not acceptable as a complete work of the composer. Despite this, it was probably the most performed and recorded viola concerto in the latter half of the twentieth century.

In view of the three revisions discussed in this book, which have appeared since 1992, it is important that informed decisions can be made, by performers and musicologists, as to the authenticity and appropriateness of the material available in published form and also to be acquainted with the views of other analysts whose work is not or cannot be published. The three revisions include the published versions by Peter Bartók (available worldwide) and Csaba Erdélyi (available only in New Zealand and Australia) and the unpublished version by the author.

It is possible to claim that all three revisions are significantly closer to the sketches than is the Serly reconstruction and in fact that all represent closely the sketches as they were left, with no compositional additions and only minimal attempts to fill in what might have happened, had Bartók taken the work through to publication. Even so, the three revisions have significant differences, which reflect, no doubt, the . . .

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