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Béla Bartók’s 1907 Violin Concerto

Genesis and Fate


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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1. 1907


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Photograph 1 (Budapest, April 7, “Sunday Finger” Magazine)11

Sunday Finger is the translated title of the magazine above, which “points the finger” to the artistic and musical life in Budapest. [Photograph 1] The April 7, 1907 issue details the current culture and embodied traditions of this glorious city. One may well wonder whether 1907 was an important year for Béla Bartók as well. While his 1907 Violin Concerto is the subject of this book, a reading of his 1921 Autobiography12 or any of the earlier biographies written by the composer offers no indication of the Concerto’s existence. Instead, one is led to believe that 1907 was of no special significance or turning point in the young composer’s life, much less a starting point for the first of his master works.

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As background to 1907, we need to examine the broader spectrum of Bartók’s development. He began his career deeply rooted in the Germanic music tradition, having intensively studied the ultra-chromatic scores of Wagner and Liszt at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest. During the first decade of the twentieth century, Hungary was in the throes of a national movement that began with the Revolution of 1848. The search for cultural identity led to a reaction against the ultra-chromaticism of the Wagner-Strauss period. Having heard the rendition of a popular art song or urban folk song sung by a...

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