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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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Is a concerto simply a concerto because a composer calls it such? In the case of Bartók’s 1907 Violin Concerto this is not a contrived question, and for three reasons. First, unlike the traditional concertos of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it has only two movements, not three. It is not surprising, then, that Stefi Geyer considered the work as a fantasy.223 In her 1953 interview with Denis Dille, she confirmed this classification: “I believe that Bartók hasn’t kept a copy of the Concerto. It is not a concerto in the proper sense, but rather a Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra. The theme of the first movement seems to portray my person and express my character.”224 Second, genre names categorize musical compositions and thus help to condition our expectations and responses–yet the musical structure of the Concerto is unconventional. The first movement does not follow the typical sonata-concerto form but is rather generated by a fugal process (see Chapter 6). And the second movement, with its formal overlaps of ritornello/rondo/sonata-allegro forms, comes closer to the traditional model of a third movement, which is usually in sonata or rondo form. Finally, it is typically the last movement that serves as the vehicle for the composer to offer the soloist the best opportunity for displaying virtuoso brilliance. But in contrast to all of the last movements of the violin concertos that constituted the standard repertory of virtuosos at that time, Bartók’s Allegro giocoso denies the...

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