Editor's Choice: 'I can't think of a version of the Second Concerto, past or present, where structure and content are more thoughtfully balanced or where significant points in the score are more lovingly underlined.' Gramophone
Whilst unfulfilled passion and unrequited love have driven many to depression, Béla Bartók was able to sublimate such personal disappointment into exuberant creativity. In February 1908, after his passionate courting attempts had been rejected by the Swiss violinist, Stefi Geyer, Bartók wrote her: "Having read your letter, I sat down at the piano - and had the sad premonition that, in life, music is to be my only consolation." He illustrated these lines with a musical quotation which included the broken major-seventh chord, c-sharp - e - g-sharp - b-sharp, adding the words: "This is your leitmotiv." It will have been particularly bitter for the composer that he had completed the score of the violin concerto, which had been written for Stefi, and into which he had poured his profound feelings for her, just a few days before her rejection. It is also to her that he dedicated the concerto, which, as in "a narcotic dream" (Römer), had been inspired a year earlier by his intoxicating love for her, but he did not do so without adding a tragic poem by Béla Balázs to the autograph score. Stefi Geyer kept the score until her death in 1956, without ever performing the concerto publicly. It was not until 30 May 1958, thirteen years after Bartók's death, that the concerto finally had its first public performance, in Basel, under the baton of Paul Sacher, with Hansheinz Schneeberger as soloist.
The early violin concerto is clearly intended as a double portrait of the dedicatee. Bartók characterised the first movement as "a musical picture of Stefi Geyer in idealised form, celestial and deeply felt." Correspondingly, the Andante sostenuto, introduced by the above-mentioned leitmotiv in unaccompanied form, is a lyrical outburst characterised both by profound emotion and inner peace, with a quality not far removed from late-romantic sweetness. In complete contrast, the Allegro giocoso, written in sonata form,
presents a "joyous, witty, entertaining portrait of the vivacious Stefi Geyer"; its character is dance-like and rhythmic, but above all, virtuosic. And the movement is filled with autobiographical allusions to experiences shared with the beloved Stefi. Here, compositional innovations, viz., the craggy textures, dissonances, variational developments and polytonal combinations of a much later Bartók, are already pre saged. And thus, the First Violin Concerto is in two senses a farewell, taking leave both from a composer's late-romantic period and a young man's unfulfilled love.
In contrast with the First Violin Concerto, which had been born largely of an inner expressive need, the Second was composed as a result of a commission, namely, from renowned violinist, Zoltán Székely, who personally asked Bartók to write the work. Bartók worked on the concerto from August 1937 until 31 December 1938. The world première, with Székely as soloist, took place in Amsterdam on 23 March 1938, albeit without the composer being present. Whilst superficially complying with Székely's express desire for a work in three movements and thus adhering to the outer form of the traditional concerto, for the inner structure of his last composition prior to emigrating to the United States, Bartók clearly chose a path all his own: one of continuous variation. This ‘artistic disobedience' notwithstanding, Bartók on several occasions sought Székely's opinion whilst composing the piece, in particular with regard to the solo part (cf. Brahms' consulting of Joseph Joachim concerning his violin concerto, or Stravinsky's seeking advice from Paul Hindemith about his). Aesthetically speaking, the work is situated in a line with the great concerti of Beethoven and Brahms: the orchestra is treated in a relatively conventional manner; the approach to violin technique is in the tradition of the latter 19-century works. But what is new about this arguably most important violin concerto of the 20th century? Bartók establishes his
variational idea both at the level of overall form and that of motivic detail. The third movement is a free variation of material from the first movement (a treatment which even extends down to the smallest of elements); the second, in contrast, is an independent variation cycle with six variations on an original theme. Bartók's monumental achievement with the Second Violin Concerto consists in the attainment of a synthesis of all of his compositional advances thus far, which in turn yields a balanced, dialectical relationship between modern techniques and traditional approaches. This explains why one encounters in the concerto both romantic horn writing and a dodecaphonic (albeit entirely tonal) theme, and why the work features a traditional formal structure with strict
motivic-thematic work juxtaposed with quarter-tone structures and free melodic digressions. Put succinctly: modernity and tradition are here in perfect equilibrium, to a degree seldom found in the great works of musical history.