Eroticism in the Music of Béla Bartók – Part 5 (Post-Modern Pulp).

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

Though of course subjective, the natural Kierkegaardian immediacy of the music is instantly on show.  Several sections of brooding along these themes can be read almost as seductions, with the build-ups working easily as well as the seduction segments from The Miraculous Mandarin.  The pairs of strings that seem to roll over each other as they begin to play seem to act as different strands of two people but these two are rarely in any sort of harmony; on the contrary they seem to only become a part of a whole at certain points like intertwining strands of a double helix in its Fugue-like structure (further backed up by each new layer’s entry being a fifth up in the traditional style of Fugue).

bartok 1

The example above shows bars 16 to 18 of the Adante Tranquillo which has allowed another two violas, two pairs of violins and a pair of cellos to enter.  Though some rhythmic unity is shown by all in bar 17, even at this relatively stable point, there is uncomfortable harmonic phrasing.  The relationship between two people at a time of potential erotic intensity, appears to be one that is building through clashes and chaos (potentially arguing that sex is the antithesis of romantic ideals).  Even with the presence of an Ab major chord in bar 17 (further added to by the second Viola adding the G on the second 8th beat), the presence of a D, disrupts the potential harmony making it viable to move in other directions. Perhaps the lover’s emotions are as equally as fluid even in moments of faux safety.

However, as the composition moves on, with initially lighter Allegro (perhaps reflecting the more romantic, joyful highs of eroticism in the reading), the piece comes to its famous Adagio section.  The eroticism has at first been unsure, moving to lighter places for the Allegro but is now back to darker territory.  The Adagio section adds weight to the argument that the eroticism and relationship that can be read into Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is in fact a past remembrance; a recollection of a person from the perspective of guilty hindsight on an erotically tinged relationship.  The piece ends with on a unfinished sounding tragedy, as if the final memory of what has gone on in the first three movements leaves them in the depths of melancholy.

With reading Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta as a composition around two people and their branching emotional and sexual journeys, the piece can show a natural progression of erotic tension, darkness and joy.  As we will see though, this darkness can be very easily recontextualised and emphasised by the cutting and pasting techniques to be found in the new media of film and television.

The Post-Modern use of Bartók in New Media and the Technological Removal of Eroticism.

“It is this mechanism that is set in motion and exploited by the culture industry, which gives the impression of being able to bring art closer to the masses, to restore to them, in heteronomous fashion, what they are alienated from.” – Adorno (1970, p.25)

Now that two of Bartók’s pieces have been discussed and analysed as examples of eroticism and post-Wagnerian music, the effects of new media upon the music will show the final step in the erotic cycle.  New media is of course referring to two specific forms; that of film and television.  While the use of Bartók’s music in these two forms has a wealth of problems of its own, there is one specific change that is of interest to this essay: the removal of eroticism.  When The Miraculous Mandarin and Music for Strings, Percussion and Piano are used to soundtrack images, their meaning becomes far more open to interpretation.  This meaning is simpler than Bartók’s original intentions.  Some could argue that the inclusion of images does not inherently change the music but already this argument is flawed as both pieces are not played in full but in small, specific fragments.  This recontextualises completely the small motifs and movements.

Nietzsche stated the following when discussing Kant’s defining of the beautiful:

“Kant thought he was doing honour to art when of the predicates of the beautiful he preferred and set in the foreground those which constitute the honour of the intellect: impersonality and universality.  This is not the place to consider whether this was not in its chief essentials a mistake; all I wish to underline is that, like all philosophers, instead of visualising the aesthetic problem from the point of view of the experiences of the artist (the creator) Kant reflected on art and the beautiful only from the point of view of the “spectator” and in doing so unconsciously introduced the “spectator” himself into the concept of “beautiful”. (1887, p.6)

By including the spectator in the concept of the beautiful, Kant has moved closer to the modern day equivalent of new media than Nietzsche’s reading of it as a potential mistake.  It is this unconscious idea of the spectator that is given priority in new media, and this priority will be shown to remove any of Bartók’s musical eroticism.

The Miraculous Mandarin and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta in Doctor Who (1968).

In the 1960s, the BBC Science Fiction adventure serial, Doctor Who, already had a large back catalogue of musical eccentricities.  Most of its scores were idiosyncratic to the stories and often derived from work in electronic music from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.  In 1967 and 1968, two stories briefly broke away from this mould and instead opted to use sourced classical music for various themes in the episodes.  These themes were derived from Bartók ‘s The Miraculous Mandarin and Music for Strings, Percussion and CelestaThe Enemy of the World (1967/1968) was already an oddity in terms of the Doctor Who that surrounded it.  Instead of monsters, the story took the form of a human based espionage adventure in the future.  The story has hints of pulp style James Bond narrative ploys with many characters under suspicion by both The Doctor and the viewer.

Taken apart, The Miraculous Mandarin has several motifs that are, out of the context of the story, far from erotic.  In fact, the eroticism in the ballet could almost be said to cover the true intentions of the three men that are forcing the women to seduce the passersby.  Outside of the eroticism, lays a suspenseful portrayal of a tense, horrific situation.  This explains why particular motifs are used in scenes of dramatic tension in Doctor Who.  “Furthermore, all this Romantic music was not noble enough, not music enough to maintain its legitimacy anywhere but in the theatre and before the crowd; it was second-class music from the start and rarely came to the attention of real musicians. (p.138)” argues Nietzsche.  In a strange twist of circumstance, his description now fits equally with Bartók’s music; it is before the crowd and therefore loses the legitimacy of its original context (at least to the viewers unaware of this pre-existing context).

The best example of this is when the theme from the Maestso movement comes into play during the program.  The scene in the ballet is where the mandarin enters where the girl is working, showing her to flee and cower in fear of his presence.  The woodwind and strings are providing a cacophony of sound while the brass enjoys a loud glissando.  Without the original context, the music represents solely the fear of the female character.  Schopenhauer argues that “In our own reflection abstraction is a throwing off of useless baggage for the sake of more easily handling the knowledge which is to be compared, and has therefore to be turned about in all directions.” (1891, p.235).  This “baggage” can be seen as the original context that new media quickly casts aside as it strives to look for new, albeit simpler directions.  This therefore makes it ripe for recontextualisation, removing the fearful eroticism.  In the story, the music is used several times, once during the potential poisoning of the character during episode 3 and in the first episode when a group of men decide to chase The Doctor and his companions.  The episode (along with the story after it, The Web of Fear) also uses Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta but its use is so similar to our next example, it seems right to move on.

Part 6.

Adam Scovell

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