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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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2. Béla and Stefi: Auspicious Beginnings

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2Béla and Stefi: Auspicious Beginnings

The story of Béla and Stefi begins with their discovery and sounding out of each other in Jászberény. In order to understand the nature and importance of the Bartók-Geyer relationship with regard to its bearing on the Concerto’s creation and its subsequent fate, we start with a love story about the young composer and the young virtuoso violinist as it is revealed in twenty letters, six postcards, notes written during Bartók’s travels to collect folk tunes, a written diary, and of course the manuscript of the Concerto itself.31 We will understand Bartók as an artist better if we recognize the roots of the young composer’s work in the Romantic idiom as best suited for his need for romantic self-expression, and entertain the proposition that he created this work as an outpouring of unrequited love.

Béla’s correspondence with Stefi supplies the key for our understanding of their relationship. These twenty letters detail his vacillation between happiness and sorrow in his references to Stefi as he painstakingly reworks the Concerto. They are a living testimony to the image of a putatively self-assured, but truly sensitive and easily hurt young man. This true story begins in Budapest early in 1907 after the twenty-six-year-old Béla Bartók assumed a post as professor of piano at the Budapest Academy of Music.32 [Photograph 5]

Studying at the same Academy was the nineteen-year-old...

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