Bartok's Unfinished Viola Concerto

By Matthew-Walker, Robert | Musical Opinion, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview

Bartok's Unfinished Viola Concerto


Matthew-Walker, Robert, Musical Opinion


A new reconstruction

by Csaba Erdalyi discussed by Robert Matthew-Walker

At the time of Bela Bartok's death, in a New York hospital on 26 September 1945, he left behind three unfinished works, two Concertos and a String Quartet.

His Third Piano Concerto was all but finished: only the final 17 bars remained to be completed from his sketches by his friend and pupil, Tibor Serly. This was done with such accomplishment that nobody on hearing the work since then could have thought that the entire work was not Bartok's throughout.

The other Concerto was for Viola, which had been commissioned by William Primrose, the great Scottish instrumentalist who in 1937 had been persuaded by Toscanini to lead the Violas of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The Viola Concerto was left in a far less complete state than that of the Third Piano Concerto but Serly's knowledge of Bartok's draft compositional habits and his successful deciphering of the final bars of the Piano Concerto enabled him to use the material Bartok did leave to construct a work which was first heard in December 1949 in Minneapolis under Antal Dorati, with Primrose as soloist. It was clear, however, given the background to the construction of this score, that, at best, it could only be regarded as a kind of skeletal concerto, the proportions of the piece and much else besides being unconvincing.

On the other hand, we should be grateful to Serly for being able to present Bartok's final thoughts, so giving us some idea of the kind of essentially lyrical and outwardly calm nature of the Concerto, which death had prevented the composer from completing.

The extent of Serly's contribution was always uncertain and for most music lovers it was a moot point, but as time went by it became clearer that a certain amount of disagreement had taken place behind the scenes before the work could be performed at all. William Primrose, on seeing what Bartok had left, felt that the task of completing the work was impossible and abandoned the hopes of a reconstruction. But Serly persisted in his task and approached the violist Emanual Vardi, who was keen to proceed. Other players encouraged Serly, including the cellists David Soyer and Burton Fisch, both of whom had played Serly's completed version privately, as a Cello Concerto, with piano accompaniment, at the home of Bartok's son Peter. Realising that there was now a performable Viola Concerto, Primrose changed his mind and legally challenged the Cello completion of a work for Viola for which he had paid. In the event, Serly's edition reverted to a Viola Concerto, which entered Bartok's list of works, albeit with the musical reservations mentioned above.

Inevitably, there still remained the problem of how much was Bartok's original and how much was added by Serly. The set of sketches and his manuscript were not returned to Serly after the publication of the piece in the early 1950s and, according to Claudia Robina, Peter Bartok said the score was lost between 1953 and 1978, in which year Serly died. …

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