Eroticism in the Music of Béla Bartók – Part 4 (Kierkegaard’s Immediacy)

Part 1.

Part 2.

Part 3.

Kierkegaard’s Erotic Immediacy and the Atonal Manifestation of Complex Erotic Identity in Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.

“Sensuous immediacy has its absolute medium in music, and this also explains why music in the ancient world did not become properly developed but is linked to the Christian world.” – Kierkegaard (1843, p.71).

Unlike the other pieces of music by Bartók that have already mentioned, the next composition is after the turn of century, after the First World War (with obvious hints of the Second looming over) and composed a mere nine years before Bartók’s death.  It may seem odd to move away from the overt eroticism of his earlier works, especially those with lyrical eroticism (Bluebeard’s Castle) or narrative eroticism (The Miraculous Mandarin), but Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta highlights an interesting, almost final step for the erotic before form and technology came to completely rewrite and even dismantle the notions.

Before looking at the finer details of the music, it is essential to contextualise one particular argument about the erotic and music from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.  The reason for this is that, despite the potential of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta having allusions to eroticism in various different ways, it is past the time when the major composers were exploring the ideas so completely.   Kierkegaard states that “Eros was the god of erotic love but was not himself love.” (1843, p.63) which is the paradigm for this section of the argument.  1938 is far beyond the days of Strauss’ Elektra or Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy with much more influence from other themes to contend with.  The eroticism that can be read into Music For Strings, Percussion and Celesta is not itself based on love and Kierkegaard goes even further describing this ideal:

“Insofar as the other gods or men detected the power of erotic love in themselves, they attributed it to Eros, traced it back to him, but Eros himself did not fall in love, and if it did happen to him once, it was an exception; and although he was the god of erotic love, he was far behind the other gods, far behind men, in the number of his affairs.” (1843,p.63).

Kierkegaard’s reaction to music in Either/Or is extremely interesting in its own context.  Carlisle sums up this context stating that “Either/Or, which Kierkegaard published in February 1843, addresses this question of freedom by setting up an opposition between three kinds of life – the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious.” (2006, p.11).  The book was published at a time when Romanticism was flourishing healthily in all forms.  Yet Kierkegaard’s rejection of Romanticism means that some of his ideas seem far ahead of his contemporaries, almost to the point of dizzying prophecy.  He devotes a whole section of the book to eroticism, but specifically ties all that is tinted with Eros to his reaction to music, specifically that of Mozart and his opera Don Giovanni.

Kierkegaard’s argument that music’s natural immediacy lends well to an overt and ubiquitous eroticism seems reactionary but fits in with Bartók’s attempts to define and construct it.  Kierkegaard argues that “Reflection is implicit to language, and therefore cannot express the immediate.  Reflection is fatal to the immediate and therefore it is impossible for language to express the musical, but this apparent poverty in language is its wealth. (1843, p.70).  Reversing this principle, Kierkegaard clearly sees music as an immediate, perhaps even primal expression of emotion.

It is worth noting that immediacy as a prerogative would also be a criticism later on by Adorno and is worth mentioning if only in relation to the music’s later context in new media; “What is needed is an authentic mode of experience that is able to overcome the tendency to resort to false immediacy.  Immediacy is gone for ever.  The only form in which immediacy keeps on being valid as an aesthetic attitude is when it is tied up with universal mediation.” (1970,p.311).   Contrary to Adorno, Nietzsche (and this reading) will favour Kierkegaard’s immediacy with Nietzsche believing wholeheartedly that ” Music is, of and in itself, not so significant for our inner world, nor so profoundly exciting, that it can be said to count as the immediate…” (1878, p.215).  This immediacy-lead eroticism and its ties with the transition between the Aesthetic and Ethical Stages of development is where Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta can be brought to attention.

In spite of not having lyrics or visual implications to tie it to the erotic, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta has strong themes of erotic chaos as well as daring combinations with darker motifs.  Whereas the darker, controversial themes of The Miraculous Mandarin manifested within its narrative, the pairing of the primal, the ecstasy and the inevitable drop in the pursuit of eroticism can be read within the composition itself.  Though the music of Bartók’s earlier works did hint at this erotic darkness, few pieces characterise its emotional fallout with such utter musical dread.  This reading of the piece hints at a psychoanalytical stance, one of which Adorno would have no doubt disapproved of: ” On the other hand, psychoanalysis, not unlike idealism, is spreading its own kind of enthralment by reducing art to an absolutely subjective system of signs denoting drive states of the subject.” (1970, p.12).  From its opening Andante Tranquillo movement, it is clear that Bartók is still taking Wagnerian ideas and subverting them.  The piece opens with unaccompanied Violas for its first bars, playing a melody that is consistently present as a leitmotif.  Bartók describes it as “Some entries show the theme incompletely, that is, in fragments.” (1976, p.416).  In this reading, the fragmented motif can show the emotional intensity of a person, witnessing the highs and lows of an emotionally complex sexual relationship.

Like in Wagner’s Prelude for Tristan and Isolde, the sense of longing comes through from a lack of consistent resolution.  The opening melody hints at the presence of an A major (only using a Bb instead of completing the triad with an E) on the ascending melody but hints at the A minor on the descending with a B.  This Major to Minor hinting instantly sets the composition off on an unsure foot.

The first bar’s theme crops up again and again but at points where new moments form.  As these strings start to overlap, with violins and cellos gradually adding layers, it appears that Bartók is showing the immediacy of a relationship and this initial theme can symbolise the dark murmurings of a person’s desire.  Nietzsche states that “Through music, even our passions can enjoy themselves.”  (1886, p.63).  Here, the passion is far from enjoyment, seeming to be an almost necessary release.

Part 5.

Adam Scovell.

7 thoughts on “Eroticism in the Music of Béla Bartók – Part 4 (Kierkegaard’s Immediacy)

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