bartók’s viola concerto – a tale of too many options

Béla Bartók

Bartók’s Viola Concerto remained unfinished at the time of his death in New York City in September of 1945, with its dedicatee William Primrose awaiting a call to meet the composer that would never come.  The story of the completion of the concerto is well-known, with Bartók’s former composition student Tibor Serly hired to undertake what essentially became a reconstruction and re-composition (Serly had also orchestrated the Third Piano Concerto, which was a much more straightforward task).

The facsimile autograph sketches of the Viola Concerto, totaling about 14 pages, is available from the original publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, and has resulted in a number of editions of the concerto.  The first new edition to be published was for Boosey (alongside the still available Serly edition) by the composer’s son, Peter Bartók, and the composer/musicologist Nelson Dellamaggiore, with the viola part edited/fingered by Paul Neubauer.  Around the same time, Hungarian violist Csaba Erdélyi produced his own edition, which was published, due to copyright laws, in New Zealand.  There are also extant editions by Atar Arad, Donald Maurice, and David Dalton.

Needless to say, things were a lot easier when I was first studying this concerto!  There was only one edition in existence, the Serly, and though most everyone thought that the concerto was lacking due to its state at the time of Bartók’s death, it was the only concerto for the instrument by one of the 20th century’s greatest composers, and it would have to do.  Indeed, Primrose and Serly were concerned initially that there was just too little material from which to fashion a full work.  Now, there are almost too many choices.  None of the subsequent editions make huge, wholesale changes in the structure of the concerto, but some, especially the Erdélyi edition, do make some changes that make the solo part more idiomatic and pleasing for the player (and by extension, the listener).  Still, none of the editions that I’ve seen really do anything with the truncated scherzo section that precedes the third movement, and the first movement really remains the only fully realized movement.

I’m in the process of preparing the concerto for a performance (with piano) at the 20th Max Aronoff Viola Institute in Seattle later this month, and it’s been fascinating to look at the Erdélyi edition and take stock of some of the changes that he has made, and to integrate some of them into the Serly edition that I’m using for the performance.  As the week goes on I’ll illustrate some of the changes and challenges of the new and old editions.  Hopefully it will give some insight into the preparation process that all musicians undergo as they work up a new or familiar piece for performance.

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