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Chipman, A. (2004). Loneliness and Liberation in the Life and Stage Works of Bela Bartok. Psychoanal. Rev., 91(5):663-681.

(2004). Psychoanalytic Review, 91(5):663-681

Loneliness and Liberation in the Life and Stage Works of Bela Bartok

Abram Chipman, Ph.D.

In an abstract art like music, there is a seemingly irresolvable debate as to whether instrumental works can truly be “about” anything beyond the technical building blocks of composition. Igor Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, and Gunther Schuller, among others, have all been anecdotally reported as denying that such works have extramusical meaning. Deryck Cooke (1959) has, by contrast, formulated a near-universal glossary of emotions and their corresponding signifying elements in music. Confirmatory evidence of what the composer is trying to tell his or her audience is presumably easier with a program or a verbal text. With the standard church liturgy, a libretto or poem by the musician, even a prearranged collaboration (e.g., Mozart and daPonte, Richard Strauss and Hoffmansthal) manifest content denotes moods, wishes, interpersonal conflicts, values, beliefs, and the like. But what of the instances wherein a musician selects, from alternative options, a preexisting narrative whose manifest meaning is ambiguous or even cryptic and symbolic? Could such choices for musical setting be overdetermined by intrapsychic issues in the composer's life? And can they thus be used to cast light on the psychological experiences of their creator and even of his or her creative process per se? In an effort to support and illustrate the hypothesis of such a relationship, I offer a scrutiny of Bela Bartok's personality and the texts he picked out for his major stage or dramatic works. The compositions of interest are the opera Bluebeard's Castle, the ballet The Wooden Prince, the dramatic pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin, and—though it is not conventionally numbered among his stage works—the Cantata Profana.

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