The second decade of the twentieth century saw the least activity from Bartók in the orchestral realm. The four pieces comprising this work, for example -- written in piano score in 1912 -- had to remain in limbo until 1921, the year Bartók finally decided to orchestrate them.
The first of the Four Orchestral Pieces is the Preludio. Stylistically, it bears some resemblance to the composer's two ballets, The Wooden Prince (1914 - 1917) and The Miraculous Mandarin (1918 - 1919; orch. 1923). Yet, its often sweeter orchestration -- velvety strings, dreamy reeds, and in general creamy sonorities -- link it to earlier efforts like Kossuth (1903). The music in Preludio is pastoral and serene, and paced slowly, not sounding as lively as its Moderato marking might suggest. Beneath its serenity, however, are rumblings of dark and ominous elements, elements that come to life in the following, thematically unrelated piece, Scherzo.
Scherzo opens threateningly, with angry brass, swirling strings, and a dark sense of menace. When the roiling manner settles, the mood turns mysterious and fantasy-like, at times, reminding one of the music in The Miraculous Mandarin. This exotic, gentler character mixes throughout with the more threatening manner from the opening, yielding much brilliant contrast and a panoply of orchestral colors. Marked Allegro, this is the liveliest and probably most atmospherically varied of the four pieces. Like the first, it lasts about seven minutes in performance.
The last two pieces are shorter, each lasting about five minutes. The ensuing Intermezzo is marked Moderato, but, like the first piece, sounds slower. It has its dark side, too, and also features mostly velvety, subdued scoring. The opening theme is gentle and dreamy, but imparts a measure of gloom. The serenity here is interrupted in the brief middle section by anxious, menacing music rising from the bass registers of the strings and winds. It subsides quickly and yields back to the peaceful manner from the opening.
The final piece is the grim and profound Marcia Funebre. Marked Maestoso, there is little in its tread that is march-like, its movement having a slow-motion pace, where any eventfulness comes from accumulated tensions and a sense of the impending arrival of some ineluctable, awful fate. From the opening, the music seems bursting with tension and foreboding, despite its glacial pacing. It is vaguely reminiscent of the music in the Marcia Funebre second movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 (Eroica).