Musical Symbolism in the Operas of Debussy and Bartok: Trauma, Gender, and the Unfolding of the Unconscious

Musical Symbolism in the Operas of Debussy and Bartok: Trauma, Gender, and the Unfolding of the Unconscious

Musical Symbolism in the Operas of Debussy and Bartok: Trauma, Gender, and the Unfolding of the Unconscious

Musical Symbolism in the Operas of Debussy and Bartok: Trauma, Gender, and the Unfolding of the Unconscious


Two early twentieth-century operas -- Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande (1902) and Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle (1911) -- transformed the traditional major/minor scale system into a new musical language. This new language was based almost exclusively on interactions between folk modalitiesand their more abstract symmetrical transformations. Elliott Antokoletz reveals not only the new musical language of these operas, but also the way in which they share a profound correspondence with the growing symbolist literary movement as reflected in their libretti. In the symbolist literarymovement, authors reacted to the realism of nineteenth-century theatre by conveying meaning by suggestion, rather than direct statement. The symbolist conception included a new interest in psychological motivation and consciousness manifested itself in metaphor, ambiguity, and symbol. In this groundbreaking study, Antokoletz links the new musical language of these two operas with this symbolist conception and reveals a direct connection between the Debussy and Bartok operas. He shows how the opposing harmonic extremes serve as a basis for the dramatic polarity between real-lifebeings and symbols of fate. He also explores how the libretti by Franco-Belgian poet Maurice Maeterlinck (Pelleas et Melisande) and his Hungarian disciple Bela Balazs (Duke Bluebeard's Castle) transform the internal concept of subconscious motivation into an external one, one in which fate controlshuman emotions and actions. Using a pioneering approach to theoretical analysis, Antokoletz, explores the new musico-dramatic relations within their larger historical, social psychological, philosophical, and aesthetic contexts.


Igor Stravinsky asserted that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc.” The notion that music permits only the illusion of expression evokes several basic questions. Does the nonverbal medium of music have at least some capacity to represent or symbolize, if not express, human thought and emotions? If so, what is its intrinsic means of conveying them? And how does music translate imagery and feelings from their manifestations in other media into its own unique representation? Such questions of correspondence among artistic media had preoccupied the first Symbolist poets since the end of the nineteenth century. Claude Debussy himself addresses this issue:

Perhaps it is better that music should by simple means—a chord? a curve?—try and
render successive impulses and moods as they occur, rather than make laborious ef
forts to follow a symphonic development which is laid down in advance and always
, and to which one will inevitably be tempted to sacrifice the development
of feelings.

According to Marcel Schneider, “Debussy, in fact, did not want to describe the spectacle of the sea, not even the feeling that one has in front of the ocean; he wanted to become the sea itself and not to lend it its voice. His music describes nothing; it only suggests a world inside man.” The intention of this study is to explore the means by which music can represent nonmusical manifestations through the subjective interpretation of two composers of Symbolist opera, Claude Debussy and Béla Bartók.

Symbolic interpretation has held an increasing fascination for writers and scholars since the inception of the Symbolist literary movement. Based on the proliferation of scholarly writings on the subject in various disciplines, this fascination in part seems to be because of the capacity of symbolic interpretation to transcend the boundaries of any single discipline—philosophical, literary, artistic, or musical—and to reveal the deepest levels of expressive meaning by enriching the associative connections among them. It is by means of a new level of symbolic perception in the early . . .

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