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Béla Bartók’s 1907 Violin Concerto

Genesis and Fate

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Alicja Usarek-Topper

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

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Prologue

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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...

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