Eroticism in the Music of Béla Bartók – Part 3 (The Modernist Jungle)

Part 1.

Part 2.

On the other hand, The Miraculous Mandarin presents a set of characters who are, by contrast, in the aesthetic stage; satisfied with the quick, disposable type of pleasures and unconcerned with future development.  Carlisle states that ” The aesthetic mode of existence is characterized by the pursuit of personal satisfaction.  The aesthete lives for the pleasures of the moment, and tends to have a refined sensitivity to beauty.  Some people might seek pleasure in contemplating the physical beauty of other people, works of art, or the natural world whereas others prefer intellectual pleasure that come from reflecting ideas.” (2006, p.77).  This acknowledges that, while Wagner himself created work from an Aesthetic point of view, Bartók’s characters rather than Bartók himself were in a version of this phase.  She also goes further to define the aesthete character stating that “The character of the aesthete in Either/Or exemplifies the nihilistic attitude: he is unable to commit to any particular thing because nothing seems more worthwhile than anything else, and his life appears empty and meaningless.” (2006, p.22).  This is the key philosophical difference in their work.  It already points to the new direction that all art would take after the collapse of Romanticism and the brief epilogue to it of Expressionism.  These are the first tentative step towards Modernism.

Downes believes the narrative allows this to be explored stating that “The three seduction scenes together make the central issue of the tale clear – the conflict between natural, subjective expression and the mechanical, impersonal production of urban culture which leads to disorientation and dissociation. The work therefore engages with a major topic in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century modernism.”  (2000, p.50).  In spite of the ballet being full of Wagnerian leitmotifs, they no longer represent a tragic but beautiful reflection of an unfulfilable desire but a very tangible and ugly want for both sexual and material gain.

Several examples within the piece will be relevant later on when they are recontextualised by new media to mean far more simplistic and ironically anti-realist aspects in the vein of Wagner but, in the context of Bartók’s original listeners, The Miraculous Mandarin has a number of intriguing musical ideas.  The setting of the ballet in the bustling metropolis of the modern city instantly removes it from the fantastical, fairy-like world of Wagner and Bartók creates this with several musical flourishes.  In its opening bars, particular brass movements (with emphasis on the trumpets) jab violently within the score against the unrelenting writhing of violin arpeggios.  While Wagner’s music in Tristan and Isolade sought to present the emotional inner worlds of its characters, Bartók’s opening music is creating streets of bustling people, interspersed with car horns, violent and angry at the traffic jam.

There’s no mistaking this as the beautiful world of Romanticism; this the fast-paced, morally ambiguous world of the early cityscapes.  Downes argue that the moral trajectory of its main character is inextricably linked to her location in the city stating that “The girl in The Miraculous Mandarin is the tragic victim of this urban predicament. Her enforced solicitation of potential sexual partners as anonymous customers heightens the sense of loss of what is supposed to be naturally, individually attractive. In her attempt to stand out from the crowd – the only way she can catch the attentions of the passer-by in the street – the girl tries to create ex nihilo, from first principles, to rediscover her natural (hence sexually alluring) expressive self.” (2000, p.52).  Add to this Leafstedt’s belief that “Love here, is replaced by sexual desire.”  and the pairing of urban setting with lustful emphasis shows a thoroughly modernist ballet (2001, p.75).

Bartók is scoring for the concrete jungle where life is fast to point where eroticism can manifest in even the coldest of circumstance.  This Modernism is not without ideology as Adorno would argue (“Modernism’s refusal to communicate is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of ideology-free art.” (1970, p.337)) but it has moved far beyond that of Romanticism.  The main character of the woman fits in with Kierkegaard’s example of an erotic creation: “If I now imagine the sensuous-erotic as a principle, as a power, as a domain, defined in relation to spirit- that is, defined in such a way that spirit excludes it – if I imagine this principle concentrated in a single individual, then I have the concept of the sensuous erotic in its elemental originality.” (1843, p.64).  Despite Kierkegaard’s era being that of Romanticism, it is impossible to imagine his, Lengyel’s and Bartók’s creation in a romanticist’s setting.

The Miraculous Mandarin is therefore not simply a Post-Wagnerian piece of music but also an early form of modernist satire.  Modernism has several parallels with the avant-garde, the main point of interest being that they define themselves through explicit rejection of what has preceded it.  Adorno believes that “The category of the new has been central to art since the middle of the last century, if only in the context of the question of whether there ever was such a thing as a shift to modernism.” (1970, p.29).  Bartók’s early work can be seen as a definite stride in this shift.  The rejection of Romanticism’s failings in hiding the truth of the human condition, quite rightly takes the form of satire within the composer’s music and the world surrounding him can no longer hide from the true chaos and repressed eroticism of the increasingly city based world.

Part 4.

Adam Scovell.

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