II. Giuoco delle coppie (Game of the couples)*

*The original title of this movement was actually Presentando le coppie (Presentation of the couples), and this title is what appears on Bartók's own piano reduction (included below).

August 15, 1943 to October 8, 1943 at a private sanatorium at Saranac Lake (in northern New York state)

December 1, 1944 by the Boston Symphony, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky

Bartók composed his Concerto for Orchestra during a two-month period in 1943 that most did not expect him to live through. Bartók already had a long history of chronic illness, but in April 1942 he began to suffer from 100-degree temperatures every evening. Despite performing numerous tests and examinations, his doctors were unable to determine a cause for the fevers, and during a series of Harvard lectures in March 1943, Bartók’s health took a sudden turn for the worse. He had been invited to present a series of nine lectures there during the spring semester, but a sudden collapse after the third lecture forced him into the hospital. The remainder of the lecture series was canceled.1 Bartók’s weight had dropped to a mere 87 lbs., and he was forced to spend the next seven weeks undergoing a litany of new tests. Doctors finally determined that he was suffering from chronic myeloid leukemia, but chose not to inform him of this terminal prognosis.2 Instead, they told Bartók that he had the blood disorder polycythemia—a disease that carried a much better outlook.3

Bartók and his wife had only been in America for three years, and they were counting on the income from the Harvard lecture series to sustain them all the way through the coming fall. Because of their financial difficulties, it came as a great relief when the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers offered assistance for Bartók’s lengthy hospital stay. Also hearing news of Bartók’s difficult financial situation was the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky. The Koussevitzky Music Foundation—which had been founded by the conductor in honor of his late wife, Natalie—offered Bartók a $1000 commission for a new orchestral work to be premiered by the BSO. When Koussevitzky visited Bartók in the hospital, the two men discussed features of the proposed piece in great detail. Koussevitzky, however, did not actually expect the commission to be fulfilled; privately, he simply hoped the initial $500 down payment would ease the financial burden for Bartók’s final days.

Bartók, however, seemed reenergized by his visit with Koussevitzky, and began work on the Concerto for Orchestra the following month. Working at a private sanatorium at Saranac Lake in upstate New York, the composer was able to complete the Concerto in only two months. He wrote to his son Peter on September 26:

I am working on the commissioned piece. I do not know whether there is any connection between this and the improvement in my health, but in any case I am very busy. Practically most of the day is taken up with it. It is a long work: 5 movements. But the first 4 are already finished. Now I am having trouble with the last, which for certain reasons is the most difficult. In a thing like this there is always a lot of petty detail, although far less than writing a scientific work. I would like to be able to finish it here.4

Koussevitzky gave the first two performances of the Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on December 1 and 2 of 1944, garnering a positive response from both audiences and critics. To one of his pupils, Bartók proudly wrote, “Koussevitzky is very enthusiastic about the piece, and says it is ‘the best orchestra piece of the last 25 years’ (including the works of his idol, Shostakovich!).”5

Programmatic Elements
The second movement, titled Giuoco delle coppie (Game or play of couples),6 is structured around a series of duets between various pairs of wind instruments. Bartók wrote the following program for the Boston premiere:

The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single instruments or instrument groups in a “concertant” or soloistic manner. The “virtuoso” treatment appears, for instance, in the fugato sections of the development of the first movement (brass instruments) or in the “perpetuum mobile”-like passages of the principle theme in the last movement (strings), and, especially, in the second movement, in which pairs of instruments appear consecutively with brilliant passages… The main part of the second movement consists of chains of independent short sections, by wind instruments consecutively introduced in five pairs (bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes and muted trumpets). Thematically, the five sections have nothing in common and could be symbolized by the letters a, b, c, d, e… The general mood of the work represents—apart from the jesting second movement—a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third movement, to the life-assertion of the last one.7

Each duet is built around a specific intervallic span, and the bassoon duet that opens the movement features the interval of a major sixth. The passage, imitating a Yugoslav kolo (i.e., round dance), is followed by an oboe duet with the interval of a minor third (the inversion of the bassoons’ major sixth).8 Suchoff gives us a detailed explanation of the duet’s ethnic characteristics:

Section a is a bassoon duet, a quaternary melody partitioned into four-bar melody sections and based on D as the principal tone of a Phrygian/Lydian twelve-tone polymode, D – E♭– F – G – A – B♭– C / D – E – F♯– G♯– A – B – C♯. Certain structural features of the melody are related to Romanian and Serbian instrumental music, such as nonarchitectonic (ABCD) form, heterometric or heterorhythmic melody sections, and Romanian rhythm patterns and shifted rhythm, where the motivic rhythm schema of four eighths (mm. 9, 19, and 17) is shifted from the beginning of the bar to its second half (m. 18).9

1 Benjamin Suchoff, Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra (New York: Schirmer, 1995), 114.

2 David Cooper, Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra (Cambridge: University Press, 1996), 18.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 22.

5 Suchoff, Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, 115.

6 Bartók later changed the title to Presentando le coppie (Presentation of the couples) in 1944, and it is this title that appears on Bartók’s piano reduction. The reduction was intended to be for a ballet production with the American Ballet Company, but the project was eventually abandoned.

7 Benjamin Suchoff, ed., Béla Bartók Essays (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 431.

8 Suchoff, Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, 139.

9 Ibid., 142.