Eroticism In The Music Of Béla Bartók – Part 1 (Introduction).

The Insertion and Removal Through Post-Wagnerian Ideals and New Media of Eroticism in the Music of Béla Bartók.


The music of Béla Bartók sits with some uncertainty between the last dying cries of Romanticism and the encroaching presence of Modernism.  With this clash of ideals producing the composer’s early work, Bartók’s music appears to have no choice but to address another line of interest popular at the time; that of eroticism.  These erotic tendencies suggest a number of interesting problems.  The first of these is how to address the transition between Richard Wagner, the last epic entreaties of Romanticism’s strangely moody branch of optimism and the new, darker territories that the more modernist approaches were interested in.  This is the transition and relationship between Romanticism and Modernism.   Ironically, it is Wagner’s great admirer Nietzsche that sums up the latter’s take on the former: “It is not without profound sorrow that one admits to oneself that in the highest flights the artists of all ages have raised to heavenly transfiguration precisely those conceptions which we now recognise to be false: they are the glorifiers of the religious and the philosophical errors of mankind, and they could not have been so without believing in the absolute truth of these errors.” (1878, p.220).  This take will become the backbone of this essay’s arguments.

This essay aims to show a cycle of eroticism in the music of Béla Bartók.  This spans close to a century of rebellion, satire and recontextualising of music and will start with Bartók’s early confrontation with Romanticism plus his injection of eroticism into works such as the ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin and the opera, Bluebeard’s Castle.  Their controversy stems from this injection of eroticism as Leafstedt acknowledges; “Such explicit focus on human sexuality, culminating with a moment of sexual release on stage, was bound to attract the strong disapproval of audiences, yet Bartók persevered in completing a work that, by all measures represents one of his finest compositions.” (2001, p.75). This section is not merely to show the powerful, confident presence of eroticism in the composer’s work but also to show the differences and ironic parallels with Wagner’s work.  Bartók’s general rejection of pure Romanticism is noted with the composer stating “So, above all, from this music we have learned how best to employ terseness of expression, the utmost excision of all that is non-essential – and it was this very thing, after the excessive grandiloquence of the Romantic Period, which we thirsted to learn.” (1976, p.333).  However, it will become clear that not everything was left behind.

The second stage in Bartók’s erotic cycle will be addressed through a much later piece of work, rarely examined or read to hold any sense of the erotic.  The first and second sections aim to use the philosophical arguments of Søren Kierkegaard to break the compositions down in order to show the possible erotic readings of The Miraculous Mandarin and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.  This can then lead to the final stage of erotic cycle; that of the post-modern recontextualistion in new media such as film and television.

While arguing that this modern use of Bartók’s music will bring fourth hints of inevitability, it will also show that the music’s presence in new media removes Bartók’s erotic essence and how this removal is the by-product of the post-modernist treatment of fin-de- siècle classical music.

Part 2.

Adam Scovell.

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