Eroticism in the Music of Béla Bartók – Part 6 (Kubrick and Conclusions).

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.

Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).

Though not as fuelled by repression and eroticism as The Miraculous Mandarin, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta also made the slight transition from eroticism to horror.  With its use on Doctor Who, the very basic groundwork for the piece was laid for a greater, even more horrific use in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film, The Shining.

This is emphasising specific tonal qualities to amplify the horrific.  In spite of only one small segment of its Adagio movement making it into the film, the music has come to define it, pushing the rest of the score into the background.  This Rondo movement brings in a number of themes from the first, as if rebuilding the initial relationship from the first that lead to the joyful ecstasy of the second.  However, the third movement is building to something far darker and horrific.  It seems to hint at suffering; a concept that Bartók shared interest in with Nietzsche: ” For Bartók, as for Nietzsche and others, these sufferings were the way live life to the fullest extent possible.” (Hooker, 2001, p.20)

Out of context from the rest of the movement, the music loses all potential for a reading of erotic fervour and is instead emphasised as a horrific soundtrack to a horrific film.  The Shining in itself has certain erotic undertones bubbling under the surface though the recontextualised music rarely reflects this. “This concern with nocturnalism is not only part of the larger philosophical question Bartók was prone to habitually ask about the relationship between man and Nature, but also impinges on his personal relationship with the urban society which in one sense he despised, yet which, he must have acknowledged, he could never feasibly leave.” argues Losseff (2001 p.125).  It seems that Bartók was indeed channeling more than just darkness in the piece but a contradictory relationship with the modern city.

In The Shining however, Bartók ‘s “night music” is used as a leitmotif for unreleased tension, often over its least horrific elements. The build up to the movement’s dramatic climax is used to give the audience a frightening jump as a tense montage exploration of the haunted hotel and its grounds leads Kubrick to dramatically show the viewer the day written on screen.  Adorno dislikes the concept of the montage stating that “The method of montage no longer succeeds in triggering a communicative spark between the aesthetic and the extra-aesthetic; the interest in montage has therefore been neutralized; more and more it becomes a historical and cultural concern.  In commercial films the intent of montage is so obvious as to cause discomfort.” (1970,p.223).  Ironically, discomfort is exactly what is intended in this particular example, heightened further by Bartók’s music.

Though the Adagio movement was heading to a dark place even in its original context, without the first two movements, the eroticism is again removed.  The third movement is really only erotic with the reading that the main melodies are two characters and this is the third impression of their emotional lives.  The melodies are fresh and new if heard without this context so the viewer has little choice but to associate the melodies with the visuals and narrative of the film, simultaneously unaware of the loss of eroticism.


This essay has gone to great lengths to show how ubiquitous and present the sense of eroticism is in the music of Béla Bartók.  The music has been interpreted in detail, not just to contextualise the arguments, but to show the power that new media can yield over even the most complex of music.  While theorists like Adorno dismissed the use of music in films, the presence of images and narrative can completely reinterpret, emphasise and subvert previous musical meaning.

Using Bartók’s Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta could perhaps be seen as an easy way into this argument.  Its eroticism has had to have been explained, perhaps even defended in order to argue for its recontextualisation.  There is an argument for the more horrific elements already being within the piece and its use in dramatic, horrific media is just a natural serendipity, yet it still doesn’t seem like a simple accident.  Without the context of the other movement’s, the Adagio is indeed like that of a complex horror score.  Nietzsche questioned this basic pairing of music and image stating “The Dionysian musician is, without any images, himself pure primordial pain and its primordial reechoing.” (1872, p.15) later going on to ask “Perhaps we may lead up to this fundamental problem by asking: what esthetic effect results when essentially separate forces, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, enter into simultaneous activity?  Or more briefly: how is music related to image and concept? “(1872,p.57).  The idea of image with music was evidently a philosophical one, around before the actual possibility existed. But what of the piece’s other movements?  Perhaps the joyful, temporary delight of its second movement is beyond the recontextualising of the adventure serial, and its eroticism, though reliant on a specific contextualised reading, will be resistant to subversion.

The same can be said for The Miraculous Mandarin; the television serial has been cautious and opted only for minor motifs to find their way into its score.  These motifs have been lifted from their original context but has their meaning really been changed?  The eroticism may be absent without the other movements but the danger from the original narrative is there.  The danger of the woman and the seduced men is of equal level to that of Doctor Who.  One of Nietzsche’s early arguments in The Birth of Tragedy pre-empts this emphasis; “On the other hand, image and concept, under the influence of truly corresponding music, acquire a higher significance.” (1872, p.59). The only major difference is that this danger is not tinged with eroticism which has been, quite rightly for the serial’s narrative and audience, removed and simplified.

In post-Wagnerian music, eroticism’s presence is a clear reaction against the final strands of Romanticism’s over-arching neglect of the real world.  While in some composer’s work it continued to flow in similar veins to the romanticists’ version of love, only with more sexualised imagery and musicality, Bartók’s music leaned towards the modernist world of cities and the depths to be found in their dark alleyways.  Bartók believed in two criteria for new music: “In my opinion all the progressive music of our day has in common two attributes which, however, are interlinked, so to speak, like cause and effect.  The one attribute is a more or less radical turning away from the music of yesterday, particularly that of Romanticists.  The second attribute is the urge to approximate the musical styles of older periods.” (1976, p.331).  While it’s conceivable that he would have disliked the use of his music in this way, both of these criteria are met in some way in the music’s use for film and television.

It seems an apt final destination to find Bartók’s music being recontextualsed.  While Bartók seemed to go out of his way to subtly satire what had come before him by using techniques against Romanticism, new media can be seen to do the same thing with the only real difference being that the music is used to create new emotional trajectories; unthinking as to what the music originally had to say, selfish towards its own narrative goals and just as progressive as Modernism was.  In short, new media has made Bartók’s music post-modern and in doing so has removed its powerful, alluring embracement of the erotic.

Adam Scovell


Adorno, T., 1970. Aesthetic Theory (1984 edition).  Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

Bartók, B., 1976. Essays (edited by Benjamin Suchoff). University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London.

Carlisle, C., 2006. KierkegaardA Guide for the Perplexed.  Continuum International Publishing Group, London.

Downes, S., 2000. Eros in the Metropolis: Bartók’s “The Miraculous Manderin” from The Journal of the Royal Music Association. Vol.125, No. 1 (2000). Taylor and Francis LTD, Royal Music Assocation, London.

Hooker, L., 2001. The Political and Cultural Climate in Hungary from The Cambridge Companion to Bartók (edited by Amanda Bayley). Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom.

Leafstedt, C., 2001. The Stage Works: Portraits of Loneliness from The Cambridge Companion to Bartók (edited by Amanda Bayley). Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom.

Losseff, N., 2001. –The Piano Concertos and Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion from The Cambridge Companion to Bartók (edited by Amanda Bayley). Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom.

Kierkegaard, S., 1843. Either/Or Volume 1 (1987 Howard Hong translation). Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Nietzsche, F., 1887.  On the Genealogy  of Morals (2003 edition). Dover Publications Inc, New York

Nietzsche, F., 1886. Beyond Good and Evil (1998 edition). Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Nietzsche, F., 1878.  Human, All Too Human (2008 edition).  Wordsworth Editions LTD, London.

Nietzsche, F., 1872. The Birth of Tragedy (1995 Fadiman edition). Dover Publications Inc, New York.

Schopenhauer, A., 1891. The World as Will and Idea Volume 2.  Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner and Co., LTD, London.

One thought on “Eroticism in the Music of Béla Bartók – Part 6 (Kubrick and Conclusions).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s