Ten inspiring pieces of music 6: Bartok Violin Concerto No.1

Bela Bartok (1881-1945) wrote two violin concertos, both great pieces. However the first violin concerto was only published in 1959 after his death . Why? Therein lies a sorry tale, and part of the reason why I find this piece so moving and why I count it as particularly ‘inspirational’.

Stefi Geyer

Bartok was in love. With a violinist, Stefi Geyer. And to demonstrate his love, he wrote this concerto for her.

And she rejected it, and him.

Such is life.

The concerto is in two movements, which is unusual, with a slow andante followed by an allegro. We know that the first movement is a portrait of Stefi Geyer, so the assumption is that the second represents Bartok himself.

It’s the first movement particularly that I want to put forward as my sixth inspirational piece.

What is so special about this piece? It is, for me, the best representation of unrequited love I’ve ever come across. Anyone who has been in that situation will feel the emotions depicted here. It opens with a solo violin line playing a quirky, hesitant and awkward theme, with a layered accompaniment being added bit by bit. It feels ‘out of tune’ but it isn’t. As it progresses the harmonies fill out but there’s something ‘missing’. I’ve tried to put my finger on it and as far as I can tell it’s because for the first five minutes the music doesn’t resolve itself – in musicology a resolution is when a perfect of imperfect cadence happens, and the section ends satisfactorily. That doesn’t happen here for a full five minutes.

Listen to the movement in the video and follow the violin. It doesn’t ‘breathe’ until around the five minute mark at which point the line is taken over by woodwind and a mournful timpani beating in the background.

After that the music becomes more and more ravishing with a climax at 6:17 which sees the violin come back with a calmer version of the original theme – but not for long. By 7 minute mark we’re into anguish again with the full orchestra having its say.

At around the 8 minute mark the bitter sweetness comes back in and a new melody is heard, but soon replaced with the one that started us off.

The second movement is a complete contrast and I’ll let it speak for itself. Suffice to say, if the first represented Ms Geyer, and the second Mr Bartok, maybe they weren’t best suited…

My recommended recording is by Elizabeth Faust – it won at the 2014 BBC Music Magazine a couple of years ago, which is how I discovered the work. It’s presented along with the wonderful second concerto. Highly recommended.

(The performance in the videos is by James Ehnes with Gianandrea Noseda conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra – a fine performance too)

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