Part 1.

Bartók as a Post-Wagnerian Composer and The Confronting of Eroticism in The Miraculous Mandarin.

“Thus, at first, there came a weariness of the productions of the Romantic Period, and then, as a consequence of this weariness, a search for points of departure which represented the greatest possible contrast to those of the Romantic mode of expression.” – Bartók (1976, p.331)

In the context of fin-de- siècle composers of the 20th century, the music of Bartók has perhaps the most violent confrontations with the erotic.  Many works present some form of over-arching erotic musical themes.  Bartók’s most famous works of eroticism stand out for more reasons than their innovative controversy but instead define themselves through the violent clash between last dying embers of Romanticism and the uncompromising erotic potential in Modernism.

“Post-Wagnerian” in itself can be too all encompassing and generalising a term to describe quite a large number of composers.  A more specific and grounded description is needed for each Post-Wagnerian composer and Bartók’s needs are just as great.  The term implies a rather strong disregard of Wagner’s musical and aesthetic approaches but is at once a contradiction of Wagnerian traits and Wagnerian reactions which can be seen as anti-Wagnerian. Adorno sums up the potential misunderstanding of this relationship best when describing the composer, Anton Bruckner; “Even a composer like Anton Bruckner, certainly not a modernist by anyone’s standards, would not have been able to have the impact he did, had he not adopted the most advanced material of his times, namely Wagnerian harmonics (to which he gave a peculiar and paradoxical slant).” (1970,p.29).  With the greater hindsight of a century, it is clear that the reactionary nature stems from a pessimistic nail hitting itself violently into the head of escapist Romanticism.  Even Bartók himself suggested that “At the beginning of the twentieth century there was a turning point in the history of modern music.  The excesses of the Romanticists began to be unbearable for many.  There were composers who felt: “this road does not lead us anywhere; there is no other solution but a complete break with the nineteenth century.””(1976, p.340).

Bartók therefore bridges this rather gaping chasm left by the last, albeit fruitful, dying embers of Romanticism and its ideals.  Adorno argues that “A disenchanted world unknowingly views art as an irritant, an after-image of the magic it cannot tolerate.  If art stoically puts up with that, defining itself in terms of blind magic, then it discredits itself all the more, parading as an act of illusion contrary to its truth claim.  In a disenchanted world even the most austere reference to art – a reference devoid of any comfort or uplift whatever – has a ring of romanticism to it.” (1970,p.86). Bartók’s music represents this inevitable clash by occupying the time between the two movements while striving to fight against this automatic “ring of romanticism”.  Along with Debussy, he branches out to further philosophical realism whilst using basic Wagnerian techniques to ironically satire some Wagner’s more rose-tinted views.  Bluebeard’s Castle contains a number of examples of the satiric elements to be found in Bartók’s canon but it is one of a large number of pieces by the composer that also derives influence from the encroaching Modernism.  In this sense, post-Wagnerian seems an almost coy description of Bartók’s work.  The influence of Modernism, puts pieces like The Miraculous Mandarin, The Love of Three Oranges and Bluebeard’s Castle in an almost avant-garde type rebellion against Wagner’s principles of never resolving love and chords.  Equally though, Bartók is still not entirely a modernist composer in spite of his constant hints at atonalism.  As more experimental works crept into Bartók’s era, there’s a definite sense that its representations have moved on from something as purely humanistic as eroticism.

Modernism brings to mind cityscapes; the harsh lines of Vorticism and the chaos of Dadaism.  Bartók’s music flirts with these ideas but never truly accepts them if only to keep the satire on the cosy elements of Romanticism alive.  The Miraculous Mandarin sits on the boundary line between Wagnerian leitmotif based scoring and this Modernism where even sex is a violent, evil ploy towards money and murder.  The ballet, based on the story by Melchior Lengyel, effectively tells of a women forced into prostitution by three men who use her to seduce passersby in order to lure them in to kill and rob.  Her situation is blamed squarely on her location by both Lengyel and Bartók who seem to acknowledge that Modernism’s honesty is one of its defining traits; “Though tainted by the environment she inhabits, in dubious service to a band of thieves, she stands out as a sympathetic character once her basic humanity is revealed… ” (Leafsedt, 2001, p.75).

The narrative itself is as far from Romanticism as possible, moving closer to the ideals of realism and accepting the raw power of a world molded by Modernism.  An interesting method of viewing this new world is to contrast it to Wagner’s (any opera will suffice though Tristan and Isolde is the best example for longing and the tragedy of a pure love) using Søren Kierkegaard’s aesthetic theories.  Tristan and Isolade shows love to be a true power but one that, once given into, can only end in the ultimate tragedy that is death.  This process of love and death, though constantly foreshadowed by the endless longing of the music, is one that skips the first two existential Kierkegaardian stages (the Aesthetic and the Ethical stage of emotional life and development) and goes straight to the highest point; that of a Religious state.  On the other hand The Miraculous Mandarin presents several seduction scenes that Downes argues is representative of the emotional stages of its female character: “Significantly, however, the girl’s seduction music each time becomes more adept, more alluring, and less dependent on the (false) origin of the perfect fifth. In the second seduction scene she becomes more human and less of an automaton because she begins to feel desire for her second victim (the shy youth).” (2000, p.50).  This musical evolution parallels the Kierkegaardian reading though does not completely imitate it.  Indeed Kierkegaard argues that ” It could be objected that Eros was indeed the god of erotic love and that therefore erotic love must be considered present in him as a principle.  But apart from the fact that here again erotic love does not rest upon the erotic in such a way that this is based solely upon the sensuous, but upon the psychical…” suggesting that there is more to the eroticism in the philosophy and potentially in Bartók’s music than a basic representation of the physical (1843, p.63).

Though Kierkegaard finds the Religious stage to be the highest achievable of exetensital development, there’s no doubt that he would define Wagner’s creative ideals as being stuck in the Aesthetic stage.  “What Kierkegaard subjectivistically called “aesthetic seriousness” reflects the legacy of the sublime; it is the turn by works towards truth effected by their content.” states Adorno, summing up the logical ties that aesthetic seriousness has with Wagner’s music (1970p.282).   This is where the irony of Wagner is found and where the erotic satire of Bartók finds its strongest sitting. The characters of Tristan and Isolde are almost always at the final stage of Kierkegaardian development, with love being tied to Religious tendencies.  The fact that Wagner’s Aesthetic Stage hidings are creating a world of the third stage makes it ironic and ripe for satire. The argument that Kierkegaard was explicitly discussing Romanticism when contemplating the Aesthetic Stage is absolute with Carlisle confirming that “Kierkegaard’s portrayal of the aesthetic sphere is clearly shaped by the intellectual and cultural phenomenon of romanticism, which was extremely influential in nineteenth-century Europe.” (2006, p.77).

Adam Scovell

Part 3.


5 thoughts on “Eroticism in the Music of Béla Bartók – Part 2 (Post-Wagnerian).

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