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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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5. Béla and Stefi: In the Spirit of Tristan

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5Béla and Stefi: In the Spirit of Tristan

It is the spirit of the Wagnerian Tristan that shows the full significance of the Concerto and the episode that inspired it. In the tradition of Romantic self-expression, the spirit of Tristan inspires Bartók to compose this work as an outpouring of unrequited love within a wider exploration of an intense emotional world. Much like Tristan’s pursuit of Isolde, Bartók expressed his love and transformed his intention into a musical deed and artifact in the 1907 Concerto. This work reveals how Bartók’s acknowledged enthusiasm for Wagner’s chromatic Tristan idiom affected his musical thought at this turning point in his career. And the lyrical content of the great opera provided a symbolic content for his own relationship to a beloved who was always so close and yet so far away. Here the Wagnerian unity of story and structure is recapitulated in another composer’s life and work: the sounding paean to unrequited love of Wagner’s protagonist and the Tristan-like motif with its variants and transformations in fact symbolize two ideals of Stefi Geyer. The polarity, linked by the first hint of the second major motif of the Concerto–the Tristan grief (or anguish) motif (A-F-E; the yearning leap of the minor sixth)–is projected into the contrasting thematic ideas of the First and Second Movements of the Concerto. The Tristan leitmotif thus plays a second role as catalyst for taking us from the pole...

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