Béla Bartók’s 1907 Violin Concerto

Genesis and Fate

by Alicja Usarek-Topper (Author)
©2021 Monographs 156 Pages


The genesis and genius of Bartók’s Concerto was mingled with his love for Stefi Geyer. As Hungarian Tristan pursuing his Isolde, he sounds allusions to Wagner’s paean of unfulfilled love. In transposing the ideal into the real, Bartók enlists folk sources voicing pristine truths of peasants. While biography and Tristan allusions supply the keys to Stefi’s Concerto, the Tristan grief motif serves as bridge from idealized romance to the pentatonic simplicity of peasant realism. In these tensions private love and public life, and esoteric romance and raw worldliness are provoked and reconciled. The rise and fall of living romance and its musical mirroring against peasant scales and rhythms is background to "Tristan" ruling a score that incites and resolves the clash of two conflicting worlds

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Preface: The Author’s Reflection
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • Prologue
  • 1. 1907
  • 2. Béla and Stefi: Auspicious Beginnings
  • 3. Béla and Stefi: Coda of Anguish
  • 4. Béla and Stefi: An Unendurable Farewell
  • 5. Béla and Stefi: In the Spirit of Tristan
  • 6. Form and Poetic Content
  • 7. Stefi’s Leitmotif: Variants and Transformations
  • 8. Chain of Thirds as Nonfunctional Vehicle for Leitmotivic Progression
  • Epilogue
  • Appendix/Chronology
  • List of Works Consulted

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Béla Bartók’s oeuvre includes five concertos for solo instrument and orchestra: two for violin (1907–1908 and 1937–1938) and three for piano (1926, 1930–1931, and 1945).5 The first and last of these five have personal dedications. Bartók’s 1907 Violin Concerto, which represents his first foray into that genre, was composed for his first love, the young Hungarian virtuoso violinist Stefi Geyer. The Third Piano Concerto (1945), which represents his late thought in the genre, was written for his second wife, Ditta Pásztory.

A posthumous work, the 1907 Violin Concerto is of interest for three major reasons: it was the only one of his early masterworks that the composer withheld from publication, it was never performed during his lifetime, and it served as a quarry from which he frequently pilfered for his later works. Unlike Bartók’s later works, the Concerto juxtaposes rather than fuses various sources, specifically German late-Romantic expressions, recent French impressionism, and indigenous folk styles of divergent Eastern European regions. After withdrawing the work from publication, Bartók revamped the first movement and converted it into the first of two symphonic poems entitled Two Portraits, op. 5 (1911). Thematic material from the Concerto also found its way into the First String Quartet, op. 7 (1908–1909); the Fourteen Bagatelles, op. 6 (1908); “A Portrait of a Girl,” the first of Seven Sketches, op. 9b (1908–1910) that was dedicated to his first wife Márta Ziegler, Second Elegy, op. 8b (1909); and the opera Bluebeard Castle (1911).

The inspiration for the 1907 Concerto was Bartók’s image of and love for Stefi Geyer, and it was her rejection of his love that not only marked the end of their relationship, but also sealed the fate of the composition. She received it but chose not to perform it. The work’s high degree of extra-musical significance is expressed primarily by the use of leitmotifs, some of which Bartók himself named and identified in his letters to Stefi from that time. A Tristan-like motif and its variants and transformations symbolize Stefi Geyer and function as two manifestations of her character: the first an image of Bartók’s Stefi as ideal woman, and the other an image of her as self-assured virtuoso. [Postcard 1]

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The work’s high degree of extra-musical significance is expressed primarily by the use of leitmotifs, some of which Bartók himself named and identified in his letters to Stefi from that time. A Tristan-like motif and its variants and transformations symbolize Stefi Geyer and function as two manifestations of her character: the first an image of Bartók’s Stefi as ideal woman, and the other an image of her as self-assured virtuoso.

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Three significant leitmotifs, each with the corresponding emotion of love, grief, or desire, form the essence of the Concerto’s compositional embodiment. Echoing Tristan’s pursuit of Isolde, Bartók expressed his feelings toward Stefi by sounding allusions to Wagner’s apotheosis of unrequited love: the passionate form that is the highest love of all and the ardent despair that sharpens reality. Both passions–each truly heroic and tragic–elevate the desire for love fulfilled in the moment of death.7 At the same time, Bartók was realistic in recognizing the struggle of a tender but anguished bond. As such, the music in the Concerto undoubtedly reflects Wagner’s fervently idealized embodiment of humanity which Béla identifies with the hero Tristan. And as the drama of life and compassion continues in the music, both of its characters, Béla and Stefi, take on larger and more significant lives. Their “ideal” dawns and dusks seem to pass through the narrow tunnel of pain and discord that finally leads to a nostalgic and shadowy embrace.

Like a hanging note on an old calendar of events, the leitmotifs remind us of the evocative past of Béla and Stefi, sometimes to the point of reassurance, and inspire us to seek their significance in the concerto of their lives. This search is undertaken in the recognition that recovering the history partly depends on the music, and that the sounding leitmotifs immortally reflect what is now forever past. When we listen thoughtfully to the first unfolding of the Concerto’s love motif, a chant of rejection emerges like a worried sensation in our emotional expectation. This, too, is a powerful feature of the leitmotif notion, which undeniably speaks a truth that transcends the actual experience of any two people.

Our characters, Béla-Tristan and Stefi, might find a very real place in our compassion and affection rather than be met with a curt dismissal or disapproval. This becomes easier when we see that Bartók is freeing himself from the bonds and conventionalities of archetypal Wagnerian human heroes–think of Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Siegfried. Even though they seem truly human, alive, individual, we must recognize their divine power. Lohengrin yearns for the woman who will believe in him and love him unconditionally for who he is, and whose love will endure despite everything. In contrast, Bartók’s Tristan, like Shakespeare’s passionate Romeo, finds the epitome of love not only in life but also in death. And yet the “Béla-Tristan hero” does not desire to die but to stand alone at the very summit of the ideal poetic world as the one supremely affected by the delight and misery of love and friendship and, in the end, their loss. In a letter to Liszt on Schopenhauer, Wagner admits that he has never experienced the true happiness of love in his life:

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I will erect one more monument to this most beautiful of all dreams, in which from beginning to end, this love shall fully satisfy itself: I have planned out, in my head, a Tristan and Isolde, the simplest but most full blooded musical conception, with the “black flag” that floats at the end, I will then cover myself up–to die.8

Stefi’s Concerto, then, becomes an eternal elegy that does not die, for in music the fleeting passions of love endure forever.

In straining toward enduring meanings, Bartók’s music becomes distinctly metaphysical, crafted by a composer driving to the roots of philosophic truths. But the foundation of musical thought and source of inspiration lie in the simple volition of pure life–in Tristan’s will to live and enthusiasm to sacrifice. Inspired by Stefi, the 1907 Concerto further reflects a romantic creativity that truthfully lies in Bartók’s heartfelt soul and is expressed in his music. However, to transform unfulfilled longings into something attainable, Bartók also draws upon authentic folk sources that give voice to the humble truth of peasants. In this way the Concerto plays a crucial role in his development as a composer and individual being. It reflects a path that leads from the idealized, “romantic” world of Stefi to the real world of the peasant. But the path needs a long bridge over the wide river separating the ideal and the real, and that bridge is the earnest spirit of Tristan that spans these two jealous worlds. Biography and allusions to Tristan thus supply important keys for understanding the cryptic message in “Stefi’s Concerto.” This study will investigate all these issues that are both internal and external to the music of the Concerto, and thereby seek to come to an understanding of its musical poetry in relation to both the composer’s music and words, passions and thoughts that are revealed in the larger whole of his letters to Stefi Geyer and the Concerto manuscript itself.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (November)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 156 pp., 24 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Alicja Usarek-Topper (Author)

Alicja Usarek-Topper is a professor of Music at Collin College in Texas. She maintains a diverse profile as teacher, solo violin recitalist, chamber and orchestra musician, and scholar in twentieth-century music. The "Professor Alicja Usarek Annual Scholarship Award" of the Collin College Foundation and the "Scholarship Award in Recognition of the String Area" were established in her honor. Usarek helps students appropriate their ethnic background to foster the mutual enrichment of music and heritage. She is married to Matson Topper, a professor of Music at Dallas College. Their sixteen-year-old son Austin, who etched the drawing for the cover of this book, is preparing for a career as cellist.


Title: Béla Bartók’s 1907 Violin Concerto