chapter  2
32 Pages

Bartók and the Body

Ernest Newman suggested in 1919 that the reason for the neglect of the grotesque as a musical category in critical literature was music’s lack of a universal reference point equivalent to the body in the visual arts. 1 Newman’s diagnosis seems quite astute. For notwithstanding grotesque art’s potential to give form to compressed ambivalences, to manifest sheer excess, and in the nineteenth century for it to carry clear associations with modern artistic expression generally, the most characteristic property of grotesque imagery is that it is conceived through, and objectified in, images of the body. Though manifesting themselves differently according to historical and cultural circumstances, grotesque bodies are often irresolvable hybrid forms involving a fusing together of things that should be kept apart, a skewing of ontological and logical categories. They are marked by the co-presence of the fully formed and the abnormal, by an uneasy coexistence between the ridiculous and the horrific, and by a mixing of categories such as the human and the animal, the human and the vegetable, the human and the machine, or life and death. Esti Sheinberg has recently provided a corrective to the usual exclusion of the body in discussions of the musical grotesque by arguing that the body is a type of musical reference after all; she argues that ‘in the musical grotesque … the exaggerations are often applied to anthropomorphic sound-analogies, in accordance with a possible conceptual projection of the human body on the soundscape’. What is musically comfortable for the human body or voice – in terms of pitch, speed and density of sound – is the reference point from which judgements about the musical grotesque are often made, she suggests:

[A] choice of a comfortable tempo, like andante or moderato, a register that accommodates the natural speaking voice and tempered dynamics of sound would most probably render a ‘normal’, comfortable kind of music. The opposite would convey a musically distorted, perhaps exaggerated and, if many such musical parameters are accumulated, grotesque purport. 2