chapter  1
48 Pages

Bartók and the Nineteenth-Century Grotesque

A hybrid creature comprising a jumble of human, animal and mechanical parts; a senile, pregnant old hag in the commedia dell’arte; Giovanni da Udine’s decoration of the Vatican Loggias; one of Aubrey Beardsley’s many fantastic creations. The grotesque is one of art’s most puzzling figures. In Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (19ll), The Wooden Prince (1916–17), The Miraculous Mandarin (1919–24, rev. 1931) and Cantata profana (1930), Bartók engaged scenarios featuring either overtly grotesque bodies or closely related transformations and violations of the body. The Wooden Prince, based on Bela Balazs’s fairy tale, features such a body when a puppet of the prince is grafted together from his sword, staff, regalia and hair and turns grotesque once animated. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, the setting of a stage play by Béla Balázs, is both building and grotesque body: the bleak castle is more than just metaphorically Bluebeard’s soul: it is listed in Balazs’s dramatis personae and behaves like a grotesque body when Judith imagines she sees it weep, when both Judith and Bluebeard hear it sigh, and when Judith opens the first door the libretto says that her action leaves a blood-red square opening in the wall like a bodily wound, a description Bluebeard later echoes. 1 The Miraculous Mandarin, based on a scenario by Menyhert Lengyel, is himself the grotesque figure in the pantomime, not only when he runs awkwardly around the den to get away from the bandits but when, bloated, he hangs from a chandelier glowing like a Buddha and refusing to die from the suffocation attempts and stabbings he has received. Though at its most vivid in these works, the grotesque was also a persistent source of inspiration for Bartók’s instrumental works, most obviously in his Two Portraits, op. 5 for violin (1911), involving a simple opposition between movements entitled ‘Ideal’ and ‘Grotesque’, but equally overtly in the grotesque satire of Kossuth and other works.