Bartók - Concerto for Orchestra projects

In these two creative projects by music educator Ros Savournin, we explore Béla Bartók’s dazzling Concerto for Orchestra, finding out about folk-style melodies a fixed interval apart, and the pentatonic scale.

Project 1 looks at the second movement of the piece and its opening that showcases pairs of bassoons and oboes in a lighthearted “game of pairs”. This project is designed to be delivered over 4-6 lessons (depending on length) and is suitable for a half-term unit of work with a Key Stage 2 class.

Project 2 focuses on the opening of the fourth movement and its hypnotic pentatonic oboe melody and how to recreate this in class. This can be adapted to fit just 1 session, or can be extended to fit 3-4, depending on how much time you have.

LPO

These resources are © copyright Rosamond Savournin, London 2018
(see About the Author section at the bottom of the article for more information).


Resources needed:

Project 1 - The Game of Pairs (second movement)

 

Project 2 - The Interrupted Intermezzo (fourth movement)


Bartók – Concerto for Orchestra playlist

Extracts of full recordings performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Georg Solti (Decca). Words and drum solo performed by Ros Savournin. Oboe performed by Alice Munday.

 

Béla Bartók (1881–1945) and Concerto for Orchestra

 
The Hungarian composer BélBartoka Bartók is considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century. Passionate about folk music (in particular the music of his native Hungary), he is famous for using folk rhythms and melodies in his compositions.

The young Bartók was initially taught by his mother Paula, herself a gifted pianist who supported the family following his father’s sudden death when he was only 7. He showed early promise and by the age of 9 he was composing, an activity he called “remembering”. He went on to study at the Budapest Academy, where he excelled as a pianist and began to be recognised as a promising young composer.

 

 

 

It was in 1904 during a visit to the countryside that Bartók first heard traditional Hungarian folksong. The following year, he and his friend Zoltán Kodály began the first of several systematic surveys; they travelled the countryside in Eastern Europe collecting, notating and recording folk tunes. Their research methods became influential in the study of traditional music. Kodály also went on to become a successful composer; he is also famous for his pioneering work in music education.

Bartók’s career in Europe was divided between teaching at the Budapest Academy, continuing his studies of folk music and developing as a composer, although as a composer he struggled for recognition as audiences found his music challenging, with its folk-inspired irregular rhythms and clashing melodies.

He also enjoyed success as a concert pianist and it was a tour of America that gave him, along with his second wife Ditta (also a pianist) the opportunity to escape war-torn Europe in 1940. At first, times were hard. Béla and Ditta’s son Peter was missing, feared dead, escaping Europe. Bartók was hardly known as a composer in America, and was suffering from ill-health. He was a proud man and refused any help he saw as “charity”. However, two fellow Hungarians, conductor Fritz Reiner and violinist Joseph Szigeti, persuaded the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitsky, to commission a work from their ailing friend. The commission came at just the right time. Peter arrived safe and well in New York and a period of convalescence at Lake Saranac sparked a period of energy and creativity for Bartók, resulting in the Concerto for Orchestra. It was an immediate success; commissions began to flow in and he began to enjoy the recognition that had previously eluded him. Sadly, his health deteriorated once more and he died in 1945.

Also by Bartók: Microkosmos – an ingenious set of progressive piano studies he wrote for his sons.

 

Project 1 – The Game of Pairs (second movement)

A concerto is usually a composition for a solo instrument or instruments accompanied by an orchestra. Often in a concerto, the solo player is given a chance to demonstrate their technique, with brilliant passages that show what the instrument can do. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra seems more like a symphony – but Bartók said that he called this work a concerto because of the way that various instruments in the orchestra are treated as soloists at different times. The second movement is a great example of this.

Bartók is very famous for the way that folk music influenced his writing. This movement uses a musical trick that Bartók would have heard when he was collecting folk song in Dalmatia (part of what is now Croatia).

In this project, we listen very carefully to the opening of the second movement of Concerto for Orchestra, where we hear bassoons and oboes behaving like solo instruments in a concerto. A graphic score helps with focused listening to the way that the music is put together. We can then make up some music of our own that uses the idea of melodies separated by a fixed interval – that is, two melody lines that move up and down together in the exact same way, but start on different notes. This is a common feature of traditional Dalmatian folksong.

 

Ways into the music

Listening with the graphic score

1. Listen to the opening of the second movement, with the graphic score 

Listen to the opening of the second movement of Concerto for Orchestra - titled 'Giuoco delle Coppie' or 'Game of Pairs' - showing the graphic score on a whiteboard.  The score covers bars 1-45, approximately 1 minute of music (our playlist only has 30 seconds so you should find a longer recording to make the most of this activity). As you discuss the music, you should listen to it several times.

Firstly make sure that everyone can follow the score, which mimics traditional notation by showing different instruments above/below each other, reading left to right with line wrapping. The numbers are bar numbers – each one represents a count of 2. Ask a volunteer to follow the music with their finger on the graphic score as you listen.

 

2. Discuss features of the music

In class discussion, draw out the features of the music represented by the score. First we hear a drum, then 2 solo bassoons, then 2 solo oboes, accompanied by strings. The woodwind play intricate and playful melodies but there is a strict rule in operation. The bassoons are playing in exact parallel to each other, and so are the oboes.

  • Which pair is playing closer together, oboes or bassoons?

Notice how the strings mostly play all together, pizzicato – which means plucked (represented by the crosses on the score) although there are a few moments when they use their bows (arco).

  • Can you find them?
  • Which woodwind instruments play higher in pitch, oboe or bassoon?

The bassoons play something called a “trill” where you alternate 2 next-door notes very fast. 

  • Can you find these on the score?

The oboes finish with a very long note. 

  • How many bars does it last?

If you want to, you can look at this section in traditional music notation ('Game of Pairs' real score, PDF)

 

Learning about instruments: oboes and bassoons

Oboes and bassoons are not only both woodwind instruments, they also both produce their sound in the same way, using a double reed. This is made of 2 strips of cane which are tied together. The player puts their lips over their teeth and holds the double reed between their lips. When the player blows the reeds vibrate against each other and make a squeaky sound. When connected to an oboe or a bassoon to create a resonator for the vibration, magic occurs and these instruments’ beautiful and distinctive sounds are made.
 oboe reedbassoon reed
 
 

1. Watch the videos and spot the difference

Watch the videos of LPO bassoonist Jonathan and oboist Alice play their parts from the opening of ‘Game of Pairs’. You can see how their instruments, whilst looking different, have similar mouthpieces, and how they hold their lips in a similar way to play.

Ask your children:

In what ways are these two instruments similar?
In what ways are they different?

 

2. Make straw oboes/bassoons

If you have some plastic straws you want to put to good use, you can recycle them as improvised double reeds. It’s very easy, and quite fun. Flatten one end of the straw and then snip off a narrow diagonal from each side, extending about 2cm down the straw, so that the flattened end is shaped like a thin triangle. (If you’re not sure how to do this, there are loads of videos online.

Put your lips over your teeth, put the snipped end of the straw between your lips so that the triangle is inside your mouth, squeeze gently and blow. If you get the formation of the lips and the pressure just right (players call this the embouchure) then you will get a loud squeak. It’s tricky at first and you will start with lots of children going red in the face as they fail to make a sound! Don’t squeeze too hard. Once you’ve succeeded, it becomes much easier to replicate.

 

Creative composition project: make music based on 'Game of Pairs'

An invitation to the dance

1. Listen to the opening of 'Game of Pairs' (see playlist above).

The 'Game of Pairs' starts with a solo side drum. The patterns are complicated but still dance-like – as if the drummer is inviting the other instruments to join the dance.

 

2. Learn the drum rhythm

This is a tricky rhythm; these words might help to learn it (listen to track 2 on the playlist above):

1. Game of Pairs drum rhythm

Try chanting it, then playing and chanting the pattern together on drums (any hand drums will do). You can display the words on the whiteboard with the graphic notation (Game of Pairs Drum Pattern with words PDF). Finally, play it and say the words in your head.

For the class project, you might keep this version or decide to change it – or even make up a completely new version with your own different words.

 

Melodies using fixed intervals

Now let’s look at making some melodies like Bartók’s.

1. About melodies in fixed intervals – listen to an example

Bartók and his friend Kodály had travelled around Eastern Europe recording traditional folk song and dance, and Bartók is famous for using these ideas in his music. In Dalmatia, one of the traditional song forms involves 2 voices that are a fixed interval apart. An example of this is a recording from the early 1970s of two girls, Ele and Maria, singing a song that translates as “I am a Girl of the Harbour” (this can be found online).

2. Watch the split-screen videos

Return to the videos of LPO players Jonathan and Alice playing their extracts from the opening of ‘Game of Pairs’. This time, watch the split-screen versions (Both bassoonsBoth oboes) where they play both parts of the duet. Just like the singers, these parts are separated by a fixed interval; going up and down together, but always staying the same distance apart.
 
In this activity, we compose a short melody and play it in pairs, separated by a fixed interval.

This works well on tuned percussion or keyboards, as the intervals between notes are very visual on these instruments. But of course you can use other instruments if children can play them. Children should work in pairs playing matching instruments (or, if you have keyboards or tuned percussion, you can share one between two).

Jonathan pairs

3. Compose your melodies

Start by making up a simple melody. It doesn’t have to be very long – a few notes is enough. Bartók’s melodies were playful and dance-like but mostly used next-door notes. You could implement a rule for children when they create their melodies: no more than 5 notes, all next-door notes. Demonstrate an example, then get children to create their own in pairs.

Make sure children write down their melodies so they don’t forget them, and practise them until they can play them confidently.

4. Adding a fixed interval to the melodies

An interval is what we call the distance between 2 notes. We count the end notes as well – so from C to E we count C-D-E and call this a third. From D up to B, we count D-E-F-G-A-B and call this a sixth. We call the interval between two next-door notes a second. (See the health warning below for more about intervals).

In your pairs, decide how far apart you would like to play your melodies. Take your starting note and move it up or down by that interval – then play your melody starting in the new place, going up and down wherever you went up and down in the original.

Here’s an example. If I have made up this little tune:

2. Game of Pairs

I might add a part a third below, like this:

3. Game of Pairs

... or a fifth below, like this:

4. Game of Pairs

... I might even play it just a second below, like this:

5. Game of Pairs

Encourage your children to experiment with different intervals and to notice their musical character – thirds can sound very harmonious, seconds clash, and fifths have a very distinctive quality (the science of all this is interesting but pretty complicated).

5. Fix your melodies with their intervals

When everyone has experimented with their melodies and adding intervals, get children to fix whichever version they like best, and practise it in their pairs until they can play it confidently.

 

HEALTH WARNING ABOUT INTERVALS
WarningPlease note, it is a little bit more complicated than that. If you know about tones and semitones, you will know that not all of the white keys on the piano are the same distance apart. In what follows, we assume you are working on a “diatonic” instrument – so using just white notes. That means that a sixth will sometimes be a “minor sixth” (e.g. from E up to C), sometimes a “major sixth” (e.g. from D up to B). If you have students with a more advanced knowledge of intervals, you can give them a “chromatic” instrument ie, with black notes, and get them to work with a strict fixed interval that is the same number of semitones every time. That’s pretty tricky, but it is how Bartók’s paired melodies work.
 

6. Putting it together to make a class piece

Once we have a drum pattern and have made up some melodies, we can put the ideas together into a class piece. Begin with the drum pattern, then put the spotlight on one of your pairs to play their melody. Then play the drum pattern again, then another pair. Continue like this until you have heard all your melodies, then finish with the drum pattern.

This will work best if you allocate a group of children to play the drum pattern and focus on a few pairs who feel confident to share their melodies. If you want everyone to have their melody featured, why not make a few pieces featuring different groups.

7. Reflection and feedback

Video your group pieces and play them back on the whiteboard for children to discuss. Invite them to pay each other compliments on their performance. What was the effect of intervals that were closer together or further apart? Can you create a graphic score of your class piece? Don’t forget to share any video or written work with us at the LPO – we would love to hear your compositions! See below for how to share your work with us.

Graphic score image

Project 2 – Interrupted Intermezzo (fourth movement)

In the fourth movement of Concerto for Orchestra, Bartók uses a pentatonic scale (a scale of just 5 notes) and a dancing rhythm to create a hypnotic, yet playful composition. You can explore this as a class in an informal way, or structure your pentatonic melodies into a class piece.

1. Listen and discuss

Watch the video of LPO oboist, Alice, playing the beautiful theme from the fourth movement of Concerto for Orchestra. Now listen to the opening of the movement (about 55 seconds) to hear this extract in context.  The first 30 seconds are available to listen to in the audio player above.

  • How many times can you spot that tune?
  • Can you hear parts where that tune has been adapted or changed?

First the oboe plays it, accompanied by gentle strings, then a solo flute. Then the tune is changed a little as Bartók develops the idea – the flute plays it upside down (inverted), then the clarinet plays a version, then a French horn. Then the oboe again, with the original melody accompanied by the flute and strings.

2. Learn to play the melody

You can learn to play this version of Bartók’s melody (Theme from Interrupted Intermezzo.pdf). This is a semitone higher than the version you have just heard. It uses only white notes and can be played on a single octave C-C glockenspiel or chime bar set.

6. Interrupted Intermezzo theme

Notice the unusual counting. Most of the music that we listen to and sing or play has the same number of beats in each bar (most often 4). In this tune, the count keeps changing from bar to bar. If you counted along with it, the counting would go like this:

2 & 1 & 2 & 1 2 3 4 5 1 & 2 & 1 2 3 4 5 1 & 2 & 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3

This is quite difficult to do! But if you “feel” the melody, the timing isn’t that hard to learn. The rhythm is somehow catchy, and this is another example of Bartók being influenced by folk music, this time by the natural rhythms of Hungarian folk dance.

3. Learn about the pentatonic scale

Bartók’s melody uses a pentatonic scale – a scale made up of 5 notes – another common characteristic of the Hungarian folk songs and dances he had collected. Traditional music from around the world uses pentatonic scales. Each scale has its own flavour which depends on the intervals between the notes. Traditional Chinese music, Celtic folksong and American Blues are all examples of musical forms that use different pentatonic scales.

Bartók’s scale has a distinctive sound – here it is for our (white notes) version of the melody.

7. Scale

You can prepare tuned percussion by removing notes E and A (or, if bars are not removable, stick a strip of post-it note to the E and A bars to show not to play those notes).

4. Compose your own pentatonic melodies

Using just the 5 notes of the pentatonic scale from the opening of ‘Interrupted Intermezzo’, get children to compose short melodies in pairs. You could demonstrate a couple of examples first. Here are some ways you could do this:

  1. You play a short pentatonic phrase, and get a child or children to copy it back to you
  2. Get a child to create a short pentatonic phrase, and have all children learn it and play in unison
  3. Have a conductor point at a child or pair when it’s their turn to play their pentatonic phrase
  4. Create a drum rhythm as you did in Project 1, and structure everything into a big piece, with the drum pattern as the “glue” between the pentatonic phrases. See if you can use the dancing rhythms of Bartók’s tune to inspire you.

If you choose to create a structured piece to perform, we would love to hear what you created! Please do share your work with us.


Sharing your work

We would love to see or hear your performances and compositions for this project.  If you would like us to share any of your work, you can send in any audio, images or video to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please send any large files via wetransfer or other filesharing service rather than direct email).


About the author

R Savournin webRosamond Savournin started out as a half-hearted psychologist, became a rather more enthusiastic pianist and then finally found her forte (via all sorts of schools, and lots of community music projects, theatre companies and choirs) getting people to sing and make music together.  She currently works as a musical director, arranger, teacher, consultant and occasional performer, conducts several youth and adult choirs, and writes music education projects making orchestral and operatic repertoire more accessible to young people.