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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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7. Stefi’s Leitmotif: Variants and Transformations


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7Stefi’s Leitmotif: Variants and Transformations

As we have argued, Stefi’s leitmotif becomes a personal and passionate voice in the life and work of the young composer. Bartók’s music and letters begin by reminding us of how he began. In the Concerto, the composer, with the echo of the footsteps of past memory, presents us with the present and leads us into the future. The leitmotif is much more than a call signaling for us to be reminded of what transpired. It becomes a life-shaping presence that makes its way forward by looking back and retrieving what was lost in new forms. It gives grounds for desire, passion, and trust. And in the end it leaves us with a stream of hope. To appreciate the temporal character of the work, we must submit ourselves to the transfigurations of the leitmotif, the transformations they in turn generate, and through the work, in the hearer. The presence of leitmotifs is also essential to the compositional process of the Concerto, as suggested by Bartók’s calling the opening motif of the first movement a “leitmotif:” [Ex. 1]

Example 1 (m. 1)

That he identified this leitmotif with Stefi Geyer gives it extra-musical significance on a personal and intimately private level.208 In the tradition of Wagner and Strauss, the leitmotif is not simply a signaling device but creates, pervades, and interprets the environmental texture. Changing the moods throughout the Concerto are generated...

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