Tag Archives: Geyer Stefi

Great Female Violinists: A List

The following is a list of professional women violinists who were born before 1920. It is by no means exhaustive, but as I get more and more information, expect more and more biographies. Let me know if your favorite isn’t on the list!

Remember, you can hear many of these women on my Youtube channel.

This list was last updated on 23 August 2011.

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Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969). Bacewicz was born in Poland and studied violin, piano, and composition at the Warsaw Conservatory. She studied under Carl Flesch in the 1930s. Later in life she shifted her professional focus away from performing and onto composition, a field in which she found great success. Her output includes seven violin concertos.

Grazyna Bacewicz

Ethel Barns (1874-1948). Barns was a British violinist, pianist, and composer. She and her husband, baritone Charles Phillips, established a concert series called (appropriately enough) the Barns-Phillips Chamber Concerts. She was passionate about furthering the cause of women in music, and she wrote at least two violin concertos.

Ethel Barns

Lady Ann Blunt (1837-1917). A granddaughter of Lord Byron, Lady Blunt was a polyglot, artist (she studied with John Ruskin), equestrian, and violinist. She and her husband, the adulterous Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, shared a mutual passion for Arabian horses. (In fact, according to Wikipedia, “the vast majority of purebred Arabian horses trace their lineage” to their stock.) She studied under violinist Leopold Jansa, who also taught Wilma Norman-Neruda. Her Stradivari, the 1721 Lady Blunt, was sold in 2011 for $15.9 million.

Lady Ann Blunt

Guila Bustabo (1916-2002). Bustabo was born in Manitowac, Wisconsin, and began to play the violin at the tender age of two. As a child she studied in Chicago and at the Juilliard School in New York. While living in Europe in the forties, Guila played under William Mengelberg, a conductor who came under criticism after the war for not doing more to resist the Nazis. General Patton actually arrested Guilia after hearing that she had worked with Mengelberg, although all charges against her were later dropped. According to Wikipedia, this incident limited her career opportunities in the United States; however, there are also indications that her bipolar disorder may also have contributed to her professional decline. Her recordings of the Sibelius, Bruch, and Wolf-Ferrari concertos (the latter of which was written for her) are landmarks in the discography. She later taught at the Innsbruck Conservatory and played in the Alabama Symphony.

Guila Bustabo

Lillian Shattuck (1857-1940). Shattuck studied under Julius Eichberg in Boston and around 1878 formed the first all-female string quartet in America, called, appropriately enough, the Eichberg Quartet. The members of the group traveled to Berlin to study under Joachim; reportedly he was so astonished to see an all-female group from America that he permitted them all entry to the Conservatory. Shattuck later became an important pedagogue in the Boston area.

Vivien Chartres (1893-1941). Chartres, the daughter of renowned author Annie Vivanti, was one of the foremost British prodigies of the late Victorian era. She was often compared in the press to Mischa Elman and Bronislaw Huberman, and she toured throughout Europe to great acclaim. Her mother wrote a fascinating novel loosely based on her life called The Devourers in 1910. In her later childhood, Chartres gave up touring, although she kept a violin for the rest of her life.

Vivien Chartres

Renée Chemet (c 1888-?). Chemet is somewhat of an enigma. She left us several lovely recordings, including one of the Japanese song Haru no umi (Sea in Springtime), but our knowledge of her career post-1930 is fuzzy. Some refer to her as “the French Kreisler.”

Renee Chemet

Jelly d’Aranyi (1893-1956). D’Aranyi was born in Budapest into a musical family (her great-uncle was Joseph Joachim, and her sister Adila was a famous violinist in her own right). She had fruitful creative relationships with many of the most important composers of the early twentieth century, including Ravel, Bartók, and Vaughan Williams. She was also a sensitive, and along with her sister Adila, she “uncovered” the Schumann violin concerto in a séance. (This is a rather long and interesting story.)

Jelly d'Aranyi

Santa della Pietà (early to mid-1700s). Santa della Pietà was a violinist, singer, and composer at the Ospedale della Pietà, a Venetian music school for female orphans. (Vivaldi famously taught at the Ospedale and wrote large amounts of repertoire for his female pupils.) She was only one of many talented women musicians (including women violinists) who worked at the Ospedale. See the documentary “Vivaldi’s Women” for more information.

Adila Fachiri (1886-1962). Fachiri was born in Budapest into a musical family (her great-uncle was Joseph Joachim and her sister Jelly d’Aranyi). She began to study violin when she was ten, but despite her relatively late start, she advanced extremely quickly. She married Alexander Fachiri in 1915. Several important composers dedicated works to her.

Adila Fachiri

Stefi Geyer (1888-1956). Geyer was born in Budapest, began playing the violin at the age of three, and proved to be a prodigy. She studied with Jenő Hubay in Budapest and toured throughout Europe as a child. When she was a teenager she met Béla Bartók, who promptly fell in love with her and wrote his first violin concerto for her. She never played the work…and never returned Bartók’s affections. Later in her life another composer Othmar Schoeck fell in love with her, and also wrote her a violin concerto. Geyer had a long successful career teaching and performing.

Stefi Geyer

Marie Hall (1884-1956). Hall was born to a poor family in northern England. She was a prodigy, but her family could not afford to send her to a prestigious institution to study. However, in 1901, upon the advice of Jan Kubelík, she made it into Ševčík’s studio in Prague. She had a fantastic debut in 1902 in that city and later became a sensation in London. Vaughan Williams wrote The Lark Ascending for her, and they consulted over revisions to the piece.

Marie Hall

May Harrison (1890-1959). May was one of four musical sisters (Beatrice was a cellist, Monica a singer, and Margaret a violinist). At eleven, May won a scholarship to attend the Royal College of Music. Later she studied in St. Petersburg with pedagogue Leopold Auer. She championed the Brahms double concerto (with Beatrice on cello) and the music of her fellow countryman Frederick Delius. Her quick-study skills were legendary: she learned the massively demanding Elgar concerto in two weeks.

May Harrison and her sister Beatrice

Leonora Jackson (1879-1969). Jackson was born in Boston and studied in Chicago, Paris, and Berlin. In Berlin she was a pupil of Joachim. Frances Cleveland, the former First Lady, provided Jackson with financial support for her studies. Jackson toured throughout the world, playing on a Stradivari from 1714. She retired upon her marriage at the age of 36.

Leonora Jackson

Hélène Jourdan-Morhange (1892-1961). Jourdan-Morhange was a close friend of Maurice Ravel’s (in fact, there is a rumor that he once proposed marriage to her). She met him after a performance in which she played his piano trio. Ravel dedicated his sonata for violin and piano to her, but arthritis kept her from ever performing it. He mused about writing a violin concerto for her, but unfortunately this project never materialized. She later wrote a book about her friendship entitled Ravel et nous.

Helene Jourdan-Morhange

Daisy Kennedy (1893-1981). Kennedy was born in south Australia. She began learning the piano at four and the violin at seven. When Jan Kubelík came to visit Australia, she secured a meeting with him, as well as a letter of recommendation to Kubelík’s teacher, Sevcik. She was a great musical success in both Europe and the United States. She is distantly related to violinist Nigel Kennedy.

Daisy Kennedy

Teresa Milanollo (1827-1904). Milanollo was one of the first great female violinists. Despite her being a girl, her father encouraged her studies and even relocated from Italy to Paris so that she might learn from the best teachers. She and her violinist sister Maria made an extraordinary impact on the European music scene in the 1840s, creating sensations akin to those that greeted Paganini and Liszt. One of her great passions was charity work. She largely retired from the concert stage after her marriage at the age of thirty. Despite her relatively short career, she opened many doors for the multitudes of female violinists who would follow in her footsteps.

Teresa Milanollo

Alma Moodie (1898-1943). Moodie was born in Australia. When she was nine, she won a scholarship to study at the Brussels Conservatory. As a teenager, she befriended famous composer Max Reger, who conducted and accompanied her at many of her concerts, and dedicated his Praludium und Fuge for solo violin to her. For a variety of reasons, she did not play much during World War I, and after the War, she studied under Carl Flesch to rehabilitate her playing (Flesch said that of all his students, she was the one he liked best). She had a brief affair with Gustav Mahler’s daughter’s ex, but eventually married a German lawyer named Alexander Spengler, who was not particularly supportive of her career. Details of her tragically young death, at the age of forty-five, are hazy. She never made a single recording.

Wilhelmina Norman-Neruda, later Lady Hallé (c 1838-1911). Wilhelmina was born into a musical family of prodigies. During her childhood, the violin was not considered to be an appropriate instrument for a lady, so her father encouraged her to play the piano instead. But when he discovered playing her brother’s violin in secret, he relented. She made her first public appearance at seven. Her first marriage was to Swedish composer Ludwig Norman; after his death, she married pianist and conductor Charles Hallé. She was considered to be one of the great violinists of the age, especially in her adopted country of Britain. For a longer biography, click here.

Wilma Neruda

Ginette Neveu (1919-1949). Neveu was born in Paris into a musical family. (Her brother Jean-Paul became a professional pianist who often accompanied her.) She made her orchestral debut at the age of seven. When she was fifteen, she was the winner of the Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition, beating out a 29-year-old David Oistrakh. Neveu died in a plane crash at the age of thirty; her death is one of the great musical tragedies of the twentieth century.

Ginette Neveu

Kathleen Parlow (1890-1963). Parlow was born in Alberta and was one of the first great instrumentalists to come out of Canada. She and her mother moved to San Francisco in 1894, where she began to take violin lessons. She made astonishingly quick progress and by 1906 she had secured a coveted place in the legendary St. Petersburg studio of Leopold Auer. According to Wikipedia, “Kathleen Parlow…[was] the first foreigner to attend the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In her class of forty-five students, Parlow was the only female.” She had an international career as both a soloist and a quartet player, and later became a teacher at Juilliard and University of Western Ontario.

Kathleen Parlow

Maud Powell (1867-1920). Powell was born into a progressive family in Peru, Illinois. She studied in Chicago as a child, then later in Europe with Schradieck, Dancla, and Joachim. As a teenager, she secured her New York Philharmonic debut by walking into the hall and demanding the conductor listen to her play. She was hired on the spot. She was one of the most important American instrumentalists of her day, male or female, and was the first great American violinist who could stand comparison with the best of the European-born virtuosi. She premiered the Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius concertos in America; she was the first white musician to include the works of black composers in her programs; and she was one of the very first recording stars. She is one of the bright shining lights of American music history.

Maud Powell

Emily Shinner (1862-1901). We don’t know a tremendous amount about Shinner, but we do know that she was one of the first female students to study under Joachim in Berlin. Later in her career she became a specialist in chamber music, and the Shinner Quartet, which was made up of women, became internationally renowned. She died at the age of 39 after giving birth to a still-born son.

Maddelena Lombardini Sirmen (1745-1818). Sirmen was born in Venice and studied at one of the many music schools there. She studied under the legendary virtuoso Giuseppe Tartini, and he once wrote a letter to her about violin technique that has since become famous. When she was 22, she married a violinist named Ludovico Sirmen, and the two toured and composed together. Later in her career she began to perform as a singer, although she was not as successful a singer as she was a violinist.

Maddelena Lombardini Sirmen

Marie Soldat Roeger (1863-1955). Soldat was born in Graz, Austria, and began to study the violin in 1871. She was also a gifted pianist and vocalist, and it wasn’t until 1879 that she decided to focus on the violin. That same year she came to the attention of both Brahms and Joachim, both of whom aided her in her musical studies. She became closely associated with the Brahms violin concerto, and she – not Joachim – was the one who introduced it to many European cities. Rachel Barton Pine now plays her 1742 del Gesu, which Brahms arranged for Soldat to acquire.

Marie Soldat

Leonora von Stosch, later Lady Speyer (1872-1956). Von Stosch was born in Washington, D.C., the daughter of a professional writer mother and a Civil War veteran father. She studied in Brussels, Paris, and Leipzig. She first married Louis Meredith Howland, but that marriage ended in divorce; later, she married Sir Edgar Speyer. She was well-known in Edwardian music circles in Britain, and she was the one who premiered portions of the Elgar violin concerto in private performance. She suffered an injury that kept her from playing the violin professionally, and so she began to explore her interest in writing. Her book Fiddler’s Farewell won the 1927 Pulitzer Prize.

Leonora von Stosch

Regina Strinasacchi Schlick (c 1761-1839). Strinasacchi was born near Mantua, Italy, and studied at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. She toured Europe as a young woman, and while in Vienna in 1784, she met none other than Wolfgang Mozart. He was impressed by her talent, and composed a violin and piano sonata for the two of them to play together (K454). Mozart waited to compose the piece until the last minute. Strinsacchi had to learn the new piece very quickly, and Mozart himself played without sheet music. The next year she married a cellist named Johann Conrad Schlick. She also played guitar and composed.

Arma Senkrah (1864-1900). Senkrah’s real name was Anna Harkness; she arrived at her pseudonym by writing her real name backward. (Once, in sly homage, conductor Hans von Bülow signed an autograph to her as “Snah nov Wolub.”) She was an American, but came to study in Europe in 1873, and in 1881 she won the first prize at the Paris Conservatoire. Eventually came to the attention of none other than Franz Liszt, who worked with her a great deal and praised her talents highly. At her husband’s insistence, she gave up her career after her marriage. She committed suicide in 1900, supposedly after he fell in love with another woman.

Arma Senkrah

Teresina Tua (1866-1956). Tua was born in Turin, Italy, to a musical family. She began playing the violin when she was six, and it wasn’t long before she was touring through Europe. She studied with Joseph Lambert Massart (Kreisler’s teacher), but in 1880, she won a major prize at the Paris Conservatoire and left the school. As a beautiful young woman, she bewitched European audiences throughout the 1880s, although much to her disappointment she received lukewarm reviews in America. In 1890 she married, went into semi-retirement, and gave birth to a pair of twins (who later died young). She eventually returned to the concert platform, touring with no less a pianist than Rachmaninoff. Later in life she became a teacher. In 1940 she sold all of her possessions, gave the money to the poor, and entered a convent.

Teresina Tua

Camilla Urso (1842-1902). Urso was born in Nantes, France, the daughter of a flautist and a singer. As a six-year-old, she insisted upon learning to play the violin, despite the fact it was considered to be a masculine instrument. Thankfully, her father recognized talent when he saw it, and he championed his talented daughter, persuading the officials at the Paris Conservatoire to accept her. She had a professional career that spanned half a century and four continents, but she was especially beloved in her adopted homeland of America.

Camilla Urso

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Works Associated With Female Violinists

An ever-evolving list. Last updated 24 February 2012.

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PREMIERES & DEDICATIONS

Atterberg, Kurt – Violin Concerto – Premiere given by Alma Moodie (1919)

Barber – Violin Concerto – UK premiere given by Eda Kersey in 1943; revised version of the score that violinists use today premiered by Ruth Posselt in 1949

Bartók – Violin Concerto No. 1 – Written for his first love, virtuosa Stefi Geyer

Bartók – Violin Sonata No. 1 and No. 2 (Sz 75 and 76) – There is some question as to whether these works were dedicated to Adila Fachiri or Jelly d’Aranyi; the latter performed them with the composer in London in 1922 and 1923, respectively.

Bax – Violin Concerto – Premiered by Eda Kersey in 1943

Beach, Amy – Romance – Written for and premiered by Maud Powell in 1895

Benjamin, Arthur – Romantic Fantasy for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra – Premiered by Eda Kersey in 1938

Coleridge-Taylor – Violin Concerto – Dedicated to and premiered by Maud Powell in 1912

Copland – Violin Sonata – Premiered by Ruth Posselt with Copland at the piano in 1944

Conus – Violin Concerto in e-minor – American premiere given by Maud Powell

Delius – Violin Sonata No 3 – Dedicated to May Harrison

Delius – Double Concerto (for violin and cello) – Premiered by sisters May and Beatrice Harrison in 1920

Dukelsky, Vladimir – Violin Concerto – Premiered by Ruth Posselt in 1943

Dvořák – Violin Concerto – American premiere given by Maud Powell in 1893

Eichberg, Julius – Dedicated six parlor pieces to six of his most famous female students – find them here

Elgar – Violin Concerto – First played through in private performance with Lady Leonora Speyer on violin; first recording made by Marie Hall in 1916

Erdmann, Eduard – Sonata for Solo Violin, op 12 – Dedicated to Alma Moodie

Gade, Niels – Violin Sonata No. 3 – Dedicated to Wilma Norman-Neruda in 1885

Hindemith – Violin Concerto – New York premiere made by Ruth Posselt in 1941

Hill, Edward Burlingame – Violin Concerto – premiered by Ruth Posselt in 1939

Holst – Concerto for Two Violins – Written for sisters Jelly d’Aranyi and Adila Fachiri in 1930

Hubay – Violin Concerto No. 4 – Dedicated to his student Stefi Geyer in 1908

Krenek, Ernst – Sonata for Solo Violin – Dedicated to Alma Moodie in 1924

Moeran, Ernest John – Violin Sonata – Premiered by Eda Kersey in 1923

Mozart – Sonata in B-flat, K 454 – Written for and premiered by Regina Strinasacchi Schlick in 1784

Pfitzner, Hans – Violin Concerto, op 34 – Dedicated to and premiered by Alma Moodie in 1923

Piston, Walter – Violin Concerto No. 1 – Written for and premiered by Ruth Posselt in 1940

Poulenc – Violin Sonata – Written for and premiered by Ginette Neveu in 1943

Prokofiev – Five Melodies; the third is dedicated to violinist Cecilia Hansen

Ravel – Violin Sonata – Dedicated to Hélène Jourdan-Morhange in 1922

Ravel – Sonata for Violin and Cello – Premiered by Hélène Jourdan-Morhange on violin in 1922

Ravel – Tzigane – Written for, dedicated to, and premiered by Jelly d’Aranyi in 1924

Saint-Saëns – Fantasie for violin and harp, op 124 – Dedicated to Clara and Marianne Eissler (Clara was a harpist; Marianne a violinist) in 1907

Sarasate – Romanza Andaluza; Jota Navarra – Dedicated to Wilma Norman-Neruda (later Lady Hallé) in 1878

Schoeck, Othmar – Violin Concerto – Written for Stefi Geyer in 1910-11

Schoeck, Othmar – Violin Sonata No. 1 – Written for Stefi Geyer in 1908-9

Schumann – Violin Concerto – Joachim’s grand-nieces, Jelly d’Aranyi and Adila Fachiri, received word of the manuscript in a séance with Joachim. d’Aranyi played the London premiere in late 1937 or early 1938.

Scott, Cyril – Danse from Deux preludes – Dedicated to Daisy Kennedy in 1912

Scott, Cyril – Violin Sonata No. 1 – Dedicated to and premiered by Ethel Barns in 1908

Sibelius – Violin Concerto – Maud Powell premiered this piece in America in 1906

Stravinsky – “Suite from themes, fragments, and pieces by Pergolesi” – Premiered by Alma Moodie (and Stravinsky) in 1925

Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto – American premiere given by Maud Powell in 1889

Vaughan-Williams – The Lark Ascending – Written for Marie Hall in 1914

Vaughan-Williams – Concerto Academico – Dedicated to Jelly d’Aranyi in 1925

Vivaldi – His work was played by women performers at his school Ospedale della Pietà in the early 1700s

Vivaldi – Violin concertos RV 387, 343, 229, 349, 248, 366 – Vivaldi wrote these six violin concertos especially for his protege Anna Maria della Pietà (I don’t believe they are available in a modern edition, but I could be wrong on this; you can see the manuscripts for some of them on IMSLP). Apparently he wrote even more for her but I can’t figure out which ones they were. Research fail. But I’ll get on that, ASAP.

Wieniawski – Gigue, Op. 23 – Dedicated to Wilma Norman-Neruda (later Lady Hallé) in 1880

Wieniawski – Capriccio Valse, Op 7 – Dedicated to Adalbert Wilkoszerwski and Teresa Milanollo in 1854

Wilson, Stanley – Violin Concerto – Premiered by Eda Kersey in 1930

Wolf-Ferrari, Ermanno – Violin Concerto – Written for Guila Bustabo in 1946

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FAMOUS PERFORMANCES

Bach – Double Concerto for Two Violins – Wilma Norman-Neruda (later Lady Hallé) and Joseph Joachim performed this together in London

Beethoven – Kreutzer Sonata – played by Wilma Norman-Neruda (later Lady Hallé) and her husband Charles Hallé in South Africa; their performance was so successful that after it was over, the concert was adjourned

De Beriot – Airs Variée – (don’t know which one) – Performed by Camilla Urso as a child at her recital debut

Beethoven – Violin Concerto – Maud Powell played it with Gustav Mahler on the podium in 1909

Brahms – Violin Concerto – played by Marie Soldat, a friend of Brahms’s; Brahms helped her find her del Gesù violin, which is now being played by Rachel Barton Pine; Gabriele Wietrowitz also played it to great acclaim

Bruch – Violin Concerto No 1 – Maud Powell made her New York Philharmonic debut with it; Teresina Tua made her American debut with it

Elgar – Violin Concerto – First played through in private performance with Lady Leonora Speyer on violin; first recording made by Marie Hall

Elgar – Violin Sonata – After playing it through with his last love Vera Hockman, he referred to it as “our sonata”

Fauré – Violin Sonata in A-major – Lady Leonora Speyer played it with Fauré on the piano in 1909

Grieg – Violin Sonata in c-minor – Inspired by Teresina Tua; played by Wilma Norman-Neruda (later Lady Hallé) with the composer at the piano

Ives – Violin Sonata No. 2 – Patricia Travers made the first complete recording in 1951

Neruda, Franz – Berceuse Slave, op. 11 – Played by Franz’s sister, the famous virtuosa Wilma Norman-Neruda (later Lady Hallé)

Ravel – Piano Trio – Ravel met his friend and muse Hélène Jourdan-Morhange for the first time when he saw her in a performance of this work

Rode – Violin Concerto No. 4 – According to the Victorian book Camilla: A Tale of a Violin, Camilla Urso played the second and third movements of this piece as her audition for the Paris Conservatoire at the age of seven.

Strauss – Violin Sonata – Leonora von Stosch (later Lady Speyer) played this with Strauss at the piano in the summer of 1914, right on the eve of WWI

Vieuxtemps – Ballade and Polonaise – Teresina Tua often played this piece in concerts in Europe and America

Vieuxtemps – Yankee Doodle Variations – Played by Wilma Norman-Neruda (later Lady Hallé) as a child when she made her debut in England

Vieuxtemps – Fantasie-Caprice op 11 – Marie Soldat made her debut with this piece

 Wieniawski – Kujawiack (Mazurka) – to the best of our knowledge, the first piece a female violinist ever recorded (Dora Valesca Backer / Baker / Becker, 1898, available on Youtube)

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VIOLIN WORKS BY WOMEN

Barns, Ethel – Violin Concertos – Violinist, pianist, and composer Ethel Barns wrote at least two violin concertos and many other pieces. Unfortunately the scores are difficult to find today.

Amanda Maier (alternately, Amanda Röntgen-Maier) – Violin Sonata – Maier, a friend of Brahms and Grieg, wrote this lovely sonata in 1874.

Maddalena Laura Sirmen – Duo for 2 Violins in C-major – written by one of the first professional female violinists

Maddalena Laura Sirmen – wrote six violin concertos; one was praised by Leopold Mozart as being “beautifully written” in a letter to his son in 1778

*Note that Maud Powell arranged many pieces and had many more dedicated to her. Thanks to the work of the Maud Powell Society and Rachel Barton Pine, these pieces have been resurrected. If you are interested, visit the Maud Powell Society’s website for more information.

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Musician & Muse: A Short Life of Violinist Stefi Geyer

Finally, some of the stuff that I really love to write. Reviews are great fun, too, of course, but essays on the great female violinists are my favorite. I hope you enjoy.

This was originally published on violinist.com in August 2010. Link here.

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Preface

Last year I heard that violinist James Ehnes was going to be performing the Chausson Poème and first (posthumous) violin concerto of Béla Bartók in Door County, Wisconsin, in August of 2010. As I read about the program, I immediately became intrigued by the virtuosa violinist Stefi Geyer, the woman who had inspired Bartók to write his concerto. The story is fit for a novel, and the First Concerto, if it does not reach the musical heights of the Second, is nonetheless incredibly beautiful and personal and heartfelt. It deserves to be heard more often than it is. Thanks to James Ehnes and conductor Victor Yampolsky for programming this relative rarity, and for bringing my attention to Stefi Geyer, who, as I write in the essay, is an extraordinary musical figure and worth remembering even aside from her association with Bartók.

If you have anything to share about Stefi Geyer, please write me. Thank you to all of the people who I wrote to who contributed their knowledge and expertise on the subject.

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In early 1908, violin virtuosa Stefi Geyer received a letter from an old school friend. In a previous note she had told him that, despite his intense passion for her, she could never entertain the idea of ever marrying him. This letter would contain his response. She no doubt felt some trepidation as she opened the envelope.

“I have begun a quartet,” he wrote. “The first theme is the theme of the second movement: this is my funeral dirge.”

Stefi Geyer knew full well what this cryptic message meant. In happier times her friend had written her a violin concerto as a testament of his love for her; now, he was appropriating one of the themes from it for a string quartet and twisting it into a bitter song of death.

Incidentally, this quartet was the first in a series of six that turned out to be the most important string quartet cycle of the twentieth century. For this was no ordinary school friend: this was Béla Bartók.

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Stefi Geyer was born into a middle-class Catholic family on June 28, 1888 in Budapest. At the end of the nineteenth century, Budapest was one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with a colorful history stretching back nearly two thousand years. In 1849 the two cities of Buda and Pest, separated by the Danube River, had been joined by the elegant and technologically groundbreaking Chain Bridge, sparking an economic revolution between the two cities. As a result there was an explosion of growth throughout the last half of the nineteenth century – musically, intellectually, and architecturally. Budapest’s magnificent opera house was finished the year of Stefi’s birth, and the grand Parliament building, begun in 1885, was finished the year she turned sixteen. The boulevards were wide; there were charming cafes on every street corner; and the music scene could stand comparison with Vienna’s. The conservatory in Budapest had been founded by none other than Franz Liszt, and over time boasted such students as Ernst von Dohnányi, Jenő Hubay, Zoltán Kodály, David Popper, Fritz Reiner, and Georg Solti.

Stefi was the daughter of a member of the Budapest police force who was an amateur violinist himself. She began her music studies at the age of three and immediately showed extraordinary promise, such that she gave her first public concert at the age of seven in 1895. She was accepted into the studio of Jenő Hubay, a teacher at the Budapest conservatory. Hubay, today perhaps most famous for his compositions for the violin, had studied under Joachim and was friends with such luminaries as Vieuxtemps and Liszt. Stefi’s fellow students included Josef Szigeti (1892-1973); Jelly d’Aranyi (1893-1966), the inspiration for Ravel’s Tzigane; and Franz von Vecsey (1893-1935), who became the second dedicatee of Sibelius’s violin concerto at the age of thirteen. Like many of Hubay’s most talented students, Stefi performed for appreciative audiences all across Europe throughout her childhood, even garnering a mention in the New York Times for her successes in Austria and Italy in 1902.

Obviously there was a great deal of talent at the conservatory. That talent attracted an eighteen-year-old pianist from the tiny town of Nagyszentmiklós named Béla Bartók. Bartók had also been accepted at the perhaps more prestigious Vienna Conservatory, but, fatefully, he followed his friend Ernst von Dohnányi to Budapest instead to study under a student of Liszt. Bartók had dreams of becoming an internationally acclaimed piano virtuoso, but unfortunately his health did not cooperate. He came down with a case of pneumonia so severe that the doctors gave up on his life. A long rest in the pure air of the mountains, combined with the attention of his beloved mother, were the only things that saved him from a premature death.

It is unclear when and where Stefi and Bartók met for the first time. It seems likely, given their mutual association with the Budapest conservatory, that they had at least heard of one another before meeting. In a later letter Bartok called Stefi a “14-year-old elfish little girl, whom I met in Jászberény.” If he was remembering correctly, that would place their first meeting sometime around 1902. Stefi had relatives in the Hungarian town of Jászberény and would often go there to visit. Perhaps the twenty-one year old Bartók had been among the classmates invited to join her.

In 1903 Bartók ended his studies at the conservatory and embarked on his career as a concert pianist. That same year he wrote a symphonic poem called Kossuth, an homage to the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, and a sign of Bartók’s – and the region’s – ever-increasing feelings of nationalism. In 1904, while on vacation in Slovakia, he famously overheard a Transylvanian nanny singing folk songs to her charges, an encounter that would spark a lifelong passion for folk music. It wasn’t long before he was getting together with a friend, a fellow composer named Zoltán Kodály, and going out to rural communities to document the region’s musical heritage. In 1905 he was offered a job at his alma mater as a piano professor. He accepted.

Stefi Geyer playing Reger’s “Air.”

Once again Bartók and Stefi’s paths must have crossed. It is uncertain exactly when, where, and how, but they eventually became good friends. By early 1907, when Bartok was twenty-six and Stefi nineteen, they were meeting one another to play through the violin and piano works of German composer Max Reger. That summer, Stefi and her brother went to Jászberény to visit their aunt. Bartok came along, ostensibly to gather folk song.

The nineteen-year-old Stefi Geyer was an extraordinary person and violinist. Even in a studio as crowded with talent as Hubay’s, she stood out as one of the conservatory’s most exceptional students. She had already played a wide variety of repertoire throughout Europe, and had even recorded in 1906, back in the days when recording consisted of playing an unedited take into a giant horn. She was very pretty, with blue eyes and blonde hair that she wore in two small buns on either side of her head. That beauty, combined with her grace, cleverness, and talent, proved alluring. On June or July 1, 1907 (depending on what source you read), Bartók began to write a violin concerto with Stefi in mind. He left Jászberény to continue gathering folk song in Transylvania, but the concerto – and the girl – was always in the back of his mind, as evidenced by the letters he wrote to Stefi that summer.

The letters are long, passionate, and wide-ranging: they are Bartók at his most open and unguarded. Sadly, however, we have lost Stefi’s replies, so it is a one-sided conversation. At the beginning of their relationship, Bartók wrote mainly of music – Wagner, snippets of the concerto in-progress, the characteristics of the folksong he was studying – but by late summer, he had moved beyond music to speak of his own personal beliefs about religion and society. “The middle class, which stands between the highest people and the peasant class, is, owing to its stupidity, actually unenjoyable. We like the childlike naivety of the peasants, which manifests itself in everything often with primitive strength; the intellectual strength of the highest people is impressive, but the idiocy of the middle class – including most of the ‘gentry’ – which lacks natural naivety, is insufferable,” he wrote. This was probably not the wisest thing to write to a middle-class girl he wished to woo.

He also encouraged her to break the bounds of tradition – “As regards tradition, it’s but holy gospel for average people. And the Stefi Geyers are born to eschew its yoke… I think that everyone, man and woman, if it is in one’s power, must fight against the bonds of tradition. This fight is actually but a striving for autonomy, to be independent of everyone or of everything, as well as to be in control of ourselves…”

In another exchange, they spoke of the morality of suicide. “I do not see why you should condemn suicide as such a cowardly act!” he wrote. “It’s quite the contrary… As long as my mother is alive, and as long as I have some interest in the world, I will not commit suicide. But beyond that? Once I have no responsibility toward any living person, once I live all by myself (never ‘wavering’ even then) – why should suicide be a cowardly act? It’s true, of course, that it would not be a deed of great daring, but it could not be dismissed as an act of cowardly indifference.”

All of this may have been totally honest on Bartók’s part – if less than tactful – but when he began complaining about, and almost mocking, Stefi’s treasured Catholic beliefs, it precluded any possibility of a romantic relationship. “If I ever crossed myself, it would signify ’In the name of Nature, Art and Science…’ Isn’t that enough?! Must you have the promised ’hereafter’ as well? That’s something I can’t understand.” And then, rather condescendingly – “Will you allow me to supply you with reading matter from time to time?…You needn’t be afraid that reading will blight your youth; even if it were to shorten it, you would be amply compensated by all the pleasure you would get from it.” And then, a few days later: “Why are you such a very weak person, and why are you afraid of reading and learning?! This is what drives me to despair… Would you still refuse to accept books from me even if I only gave you books in which there is merely a total lack of reference to god – or at least only pious reference?!” Finally, perhaps realizing that they both were both holding stubborn in their own beliefs, he wrote, “I would never attempt to talk you out of your faith, distressed though I am by your present state of mind. Move the first moment of crisis, you would relapse, I am sure — Yes, let us drop the subject; we may discuss it again – at some later date, maybe, but not now.” He signed one of these letters, “Greetings from AN UNBELIEVER (who is more honest than a great many believers).”

Some historians, if they mention Geyer at all, imply that she toyed with Bartók. Sentences like “Violinist Stefi Geyer, whom friends remember as a dark, rapt beauty, a trifle spoiled by her early musical success, and more interested in her career than in young Bartok” are not uncommon (although, thankfully, that is an extreme example). But without having Stefi’s side of the story in writing, there is insufficient information to make such claims. The side of the correspondence that we do have – Bartók’s – makes it clear that their relationship was likely doomed from the beginning, thanks to fundamental differences in worldviews.

These fundamental differences didn’t matter to Bartók: despite them, he had fallen very deeply in love, although he surely sensed Stefi‘s hesitancy. “I have a sad misgiving that I shall never find any consolation in life save in music. For some time, I have been in a very strange mood, going from one extreme to the other. One letter from you, a line, even a word – and I am in a transport of joy, the next brings me almost to tears, it hurts so. What is to be the end of it all? And when? It is as if I am in a state of spiritual intoxication all the time.”

Throughout his turmoil, Bartók continued writing the concerto. The first movement was to be a portrait of Stefi Geyer as person and woman – “the idealized Stefi, celestial and inward,” Bartók wrote. Stefi herself later described it as a portrait of “the young girl he loved.” The movement is lush and romantic, with touches of Wagner. The gentle opening theme is pianissimo, and stated alone by the solo violin.

David Oistrakh in the first movement of the concerto.

This first movement makes it clear that in Bartók’s ideal world, Stefi Geyer would be a gentle, acquiescent figure. One cannot help but think of the widely cited Victorian ideal of womanhood: the gentle, unassuming “angel of the house.” Unfortunately for Bartók, Stefi Geyer had already defied that stereotype from an early age, simply by taking her violin studies seriously, and taking Europe by storm as a prodigy.

The second movement was to represent Stefi Geyer as the elfish, witty, sparkling virtuoso violinist. “Cheerful, witty, and amusing,” Bartók called it. Stefi referred to the movement as a tribute to “the violinist he admired.” Its main theme is actually the theme of the first movement, only slightly tweaked and turned around. Once again, the violin enters by itself, but this time it is a brash forte, totally different in character from the theme of the innocent angelic girl.

In other words (or notes) -

Notice the similarity to the first movement theme.

David Oistrakh in the second movement of the concerto.

Was Bartók making a statement here, even subconsciously, that two parts of Stefi Geyer – her womanhood and her career – were diametrically opposed? Interestingly, after a variety of virtuoso fireworks, the last phrase the violin plays in the entire concerto is a return to that lush, romantic “idealized” theme of the first movement.

David Oistrakh in the end of the second movement of the concerto. (Listen to 6:00 to the end to hear the phrases I’m referring to.)

Is this Bartók indulging in one last vain hope that the independent virtuoso violinist might succumb to the gentle, acquiescent, ideal girl? It is impossible to know.

As the autumn progressed, the strains in their relationship became more and more obvious. Bartók wrote in late November 1907, after working on the first two movements, that “Now, I should compose a picture of the indifferent, cool, silent St. G. But this would be hateful music.” Ten days later he wrote, “You are a dear, a good, a fairy-like, an enchanting girl! who has only to draw a few lines to chase the dark, grimly swirling clouds from the sky and makes the bright sun shine on me. – You are a taciturn, a bad, a cruel, a miserly girl! to begrudge me your powers of enchantment!” Finally he came to the conclusion – no doubt to Stefi’s relief – that he was not going to write the intended final “hateful” movement.

But this decision didn’t keep Bartók from composing something to express his feelings over the failed relationship. The last of his Fourteen Bagatelles for piano is a bitter waltz that employs the theme from the violin concerto. He later orchestrated this and used it as the second movement – “Grotesque” – in the Two Portraits. (The First Portrait is basically the first movement of the violin concerto, so he was certainly thinking of Stefi as he wrote.) Some have even theorized that this “Grotesque” movement was originally conceived as the third movement to the concerto.

Two Portraits, Op. 5. At 10:25, the second movement, “Grotesque,” begins. You’ll notice the first movement is basically the first movement of the violin concerto. 

Things only got worse between the two of them. In early February, Bartók finally finished the violin concerto. On the same day, Stefi Geyer wrote him that she could not consider courting or marrying him. He wrote, “I finished the score of the violin concerto on the 5th of February, the very day you were writing my death sentence… I locked it in my desk, I don’t know whether to destroy it or to keep it locked away until it is found after I die and the whole pile of papers, my declaration of love, your concerto, my best work are thrown out.” But thankfully for us, instead of destroying the work, he mailed the manuscript – the only copy he had – to Stefi, inscribed with a line of poetry from Béla Balázs: “No two stars are as far apart as two human souls.” Bartók would employ the poetry of Balázs in later compositions, including Bluebeard’s Castle and The Wooden Prince.

Around this time, Bartók began writing his first string quartet. True to his word, in the first movement he employed Stefi’s “virtuosic” theme and turned it into a mournful dirge.

The first movement of the first string quartet – the movement Bartok referred to as his funeral dirge.

As no one but the two of them had seen the score to the violin concerto, audiences listening to the quartet were unaware of the significance of this first theme. They would, however, have recognized a quotation in the third movement of a popular art song called “Just A Fair Girl.” Some historians have interpreted this as a defiant “toss of the head” to Stefi.

The following year, in 1909, Bartók went on a walk with a teenaged girl named Márta Ziegler, one of his piano students at the conservatory. He had met Márta, the daughter of a member of the Budapest police force, at the age of fourteen. The similarities to Stefi are striking. After they returned from the walk, Bartok’s mother asked if sixteen-year-old Márta was staying for dinner. He answered that they had just gotten married. Bartók later dedicated the opera “Bluebeard’s Castle” to Márta. Even in this opera, there were traces of the “Stefi Geyer” theme, but by now it reminded him of more than just his first love: it served as a compositional shorthand for many complex emotions.

As for Stefi, she kept the score to the violin concerto locked away among her papers, and although she occasionally spoke of it, she never performed it. In fact, there are indications it may have been sold at the end of her life to pay for her medical expenses.

Béla Bartók was not the first composer to come under Stefi Geyer’s spell. Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957) was also afflicted with a deep, passionate love for the virtuosa violinist that lasted for years. Schoeck had first heard her perform in 1905, when she was seventeen. “She thrilled me to the depths of my being,” he said. Their paths crossed again in 1907 when she performed in Leipzig while he was studying with Max Reger (the same composer whose works Stefi and Bartok had played together in Budapest). “My heartthrob, the lovely Stefi Geyer, was here recently; she played wonderfully and enchanted me more than ever,” he wrote to his parents. Even toward the end of his life he sighed, “She knew how to move so beautifully and to walk so beautifully.”

A few months after breaking things off with Bartók, Stefi finally met her long-time admirer in July 1908. Immediately Schoeck began to write for her. First came a tiny Albumblatt, then a full-length Violin Sonata, and then an actual Violin Concerto. All three were dedicated to Stefi. He continued in his attempts to woo her throughout 1908, later claiming they wrote passionate love letters to each other. If they did – and historians are skeptical on the point – they were later burned by his wife. Adding weight to that skepticism is the fact that Schoeck complained to others that all the physical contact he had been able to wring out of Stefi was a chaste kiss, and that Stefi was his only female friend that had not at some point made a pass at him.

Sometime around 1910, Stefi Geyer became engaged to Viennese lawyer Erwin Jung. Predictably, Schoeck referred to him as a “Viennese ponce” – or a person who fakes having class or culture. During her engagement, she invited Shoeck to come to visit her and her family in Budapest. He accepted the invitation, went to Budapest, wrote an unconvincing postcard to his friends that he had gotten over her, came home, and then promptly began writing a violin concerto for her. While he was writing the piece, he began rooming with a Russian medical student named Bertha Liebert. She soon became pregnant, but the baby died the same day it was born. He nonetheless continued to sleep with Bertha while hoping against hope that he could seduce Stefi.

The violin concerto that Schoeck wrote for Stefi.

To Schoeck’s dismay, Stefi married in 1911 and relocated to Vienna, where she took the name Stefi Geyer-Jung and taught. Unfortunately her marriage with Jung was not a happy one, and he eventually began drinking heavily. Throughout this turbulent time Stefi continued with her career, touring throughout Europe and even playing a concerto in Budapest that her old teacher Jenő Hubay had written for her.

Hubay’s fourth violin concerto, which was dedicated to Stefi.

During the late teens, perhaps spurred in part by the war and her unhappy marriage, Stefi seems to have reconsidered the direction of her career. She began studying with violinist Adolf Busch in Budapest, learning new repertoire and new styles of playing. In the process she switched the emphasis of her repertoire from virtuosic Romantic pieces to more restrained Classical ones.

Then, in 1918, catastrophe. Between a hundred fifty and two hundred million people around the world – three percent of the population – died of the infamous “flu.” Otherwise healthy young adults were the primary victims. During this terrifying epidemic, coming straight on the heels of the First World War, Stefi’s husband died. Two years later, in 1920, she married a man named Walter Schulthess, who was a pianist, composer, and concert agent (and, incidentally, a friend of both Schoeck and Jung). Although they both traveled a great deal, they moved their home base to Switzerland, where, in 1923, Stefi began teaching at the Zurich Conservatoire. (She taught violinist Aida Stucki, who became Anne Sophie Mutter’s mentor.)

Her pace of touring did not diminish throughout the twenties. In fact, she gave more than a hundred concerts in Scandinavia in the 1922-23 season alone. In 1924 she traveled to America, but reviews of her performances there have not surfaced. She performed many concertos with all of the major Swiss orchestras, and even performed the violin concerto Schoeck had written for her with Schoeck at the podium. During the thirties she recorded a good deal, and today we have records of her interpretations of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, and even Schoeck. They are difficult to find on disc, but well worth scouting out.

Stefi Geyer playing Kreisler’s arrangement of Tartini’s A-major Fugue

Although Stefi and Bartók had parted fifteen years or so ago under less than amicable circumstances, they apparently somehow reconciled in the teens or twenties. In fact, by 1928, Bartók, Stefi, and her husband were all writing friendly letters to one another. Schulthess and Stefi often played his compositions, and in 1929 Stefi performed in a recital that consisted of all Bartók’s music. In 1940, she even helped Bartók and his second wife Ditta emigrate to America to escape the turmoil enveloping Europe, and she would often introduce her students to this extraordinary man and composer.

Stefi Geyer died in December of 1956 in Zurich. Somehow after her death her friend and fellow musician Paul Sacher retrieved the manuscript and the letters from Bartók that she had kept locked away for so many years. Sacher was the conductor at the world premiere of the piece in Switzerland in 1958, and in the spring of 1961 Isaac Stern gave its American premiere at Carnegie Hall. Although it is not heard as often as the Second Violin Concerto, it is still occasionally revived today.

Much about Stefi’s career remains shrouded in silence. Because more research has been done on men like Schoeck and Bartók than on Geyer, it is tempting to identify and remember her solely as a muse – in other words, as someone only worth remembering because of the extraordinary inspiration she was to others. But Stefi Geyer’s accomplishments as a violinist are just as important and unique in their own way as the pieces that she inspired. To remember her solely as Bartók’s early love does her a great disservice; despite the fact that we do not know a tremendous amount about her life, it is clear, as Paul Sacher said, that “She was a superb violinist, a major soloist and an excellent musician.”

***

Sources

(Note: I wrote this particular essay without sourcing, as I intended it to be a primer on Geyer’s life, rather than an authoritative scholarly essay. So don’t use anything in this essay for scholarly purposes yourself unless you can source specific facts for yourself. I’ll update the essay when new information comes to light and note it here. In the future I will source better. Promise. Nonetheless, below are some of the books and websites I found helpful while writing this piece.)

Books

Musical Symbolism in the Operas of Debussy and Bartók: Trauma, Gender, and the Unfolding of the Unconscious; by Elliott Antokoletz; 2004

Bartók and the Grotesque: Studies in Modernity, The Body, and Contradiction in Music; by Julie Brown; 2007

“Bartók’s Fourteen Bagatelles op. 6 for piano: Toward Performance Authenticity”, by Victoria Fisher; from the book Bartók Perspectives: Man, Composer, and Ethnomusicologist; 2000

Bartók’s Chamber Music; by János Kárṕati; 1976

Béla Bartók: Composition, Concepts, and Autograph Sources; by László Somfai; 1996

Websites

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stefi_Geyer

http://www.bartoknewseries.com/en/bartok-new-series-13-14

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,874348,00.html

http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/belabartok.html

http://www.seattlesymphony.org/symphony/buy/single/programnotes.aspx?id=4972&src=t&dateid=4972&detect=yes

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