Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality

Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality

Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality

Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality

Synopsis

Susan McClary is professor of musicology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Excerpt

In the grisly fairy tale of Bluebeard, the new bride, Judith, is given keys to all the chambers in her husband's castle with strict instructions that she is never to unlock the seventh door. Upon opening the first six doors, Judith discovers those aspects of Bluebeard that he wishes to claim—his wealth, strength, political dominion, love of beauty, and so on. Bluebeard offers a form of symbolic self-representation in these chambers: he reveals himself as the man he wants Judith to adore. But throughout her explorations — behind every door—she finds traces of something else, something hidden that sustains all she is actually shown, something that resonates with the old tales of horror she has heard. And in opening the final door she comes face to face with that unspoken, forbidden factor.

In some versions of the Bluebeard story, what Judith discovers behind the forbidden door are the mangled bodies of previous wives who likewise went too far in their quests for knowledge. Bruno Bettelheim assumes that she and Bluebeard's other hapless victims must have committed carnal transgressions of the magnitude of adultery in order to be deserving of such dreadful ends. But it is also possible to interpret the story rather more literally: Judith and her sisters were simply not satisfied with the contradictory versions of reality given to them by a self-serving patriarch, and they aspired to discover the truth behind the façade.

The version of the story set by Bartók in his opera Bluebeard's Castle tends to support such a reading. Judith discovers not only Bluebeard's crimes but also his pain, his fears, his vulnerability. For this she is not executed but rather is exiled into darkness along with the other still-living wives, away from the light of his presence. The last speech is uttered by Bluebeard, whose tragedy this opera finally is. He is forever being betrayed . . .

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