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Béla Bartók’s Dissonant Ecologies: Nonhuman Sound in Bluebeard’s Castle

Mine is the realm of dissonances.

—Béla Bartók, letter to Stefi Geyer, September 6, 1907[1]

They are estranged from that with which they have most constant intercourse.

—Heraclitus, “Fragment 93”[2]

In a 1907 letter to Stefi Geyer (the young violinist for whom he wrote the First Violin Concerto), Bartók writes: “It’s not the body that’s mortal and the soul that’s immortal, but the other way around. The soul is transitory and the body (that is, matter) is everlasting! . . . The body, as matter, is ‘immortal’ indeed, for matter in this world is never lost; it only changes its form” (Béla Bartók Letters, 76, emphasis in the original). Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1918; first version, 1911) can be read as an attempt to give expression to the idea of “immortal,” as well as agential, matter, beginning with the castle itself. The drama of the opera revolves around the opening of the castle’s seven doors by the light-bringing human characters, Judith and Bluebeard, leading to the inner chamber. Here Judith becomes absorbed into the object world of the castle as Bluebeard simultaneously becomes swallowed by the closing “night forever” of the opera’s final curtain. The sweating, weeping, sighing, bleeding, and shrieking castle was originally conceived by librettist Béla Balázs as the third character of the opera: it is both a noisy environment into which the characters are thrust and a sonic agent in itself, its “voice” (and the discordant voices of its objects) as central to the opera as those of its human characters.

In Bluebeard’s Castle Bartók rethinks traditional definitions of nature, in which “nature” is conceptualized as the opposite of “culture” and identified with the qualities of harmony, unity, and a stable self-identity unmediated by human thought and human being. In this mode of thinking, which has in recent years come under challenge from Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, Karen Barad, Bruno Latour, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton, and Elizabeth Povinelli, among several others, nature becomes the passive backdrop for human activity, and for masculine and imperialist fantasies of control or dominance over a recalcitrant external world.[3] In the early twentieth century, the particular configuration of the nature/culture divide in music tended to oppose the supposedly primitive music of peasant or folk cultures to the modern “art” music of the Second Viennese School. For Arnold Schoenberg, its leading proponent, 12-tone composition became a way for the composer to master the chaotic noise of nature through the laws of the organized composition. In “Theory of Form” (1924) he writes:

[O]ne must . . . in all circumstances, use force on nature, on the material—sounds: that one must force them to keep to a direction and a succession laid down by us. One has to force nature—the material—by means of nature—our way of thinking—to work naturally according to our nature; otherwise, we can either not grasp it or else, if one lets the sounds run as they please, it remains a children’s game, like electrical experiments with elderberries or tobogganing or the like. Every more developed game comes about because the course of nature is modified by a force from the outside.[4]

The ambiguity here between multiple kinds of “nature” is instructive: Schoenberg draws on one concept of nature as brute “material” and another as the human mind, by which he means something akin to “human nature,” or “our way of thinking,” that has to master the “nature” of formless, fractious “material.” Nature, in Schoenberg’s analysis, is not “natural,” though the human mind itself is. In a roughly contemporary essay, “Hauer’s Theories” (1923), Schoenberg claims, “[W]e are obviously as nature around us is, as the cosmos is. So that is also how our music is. But then our music must also be as we are. . . . But then from our nature alone I can deduce how our music is.”[5]

Schoenberg extends this analogy between the human brain and the “cosmos” towards the end of the same essay:

Either we are tied to universal laws, in which case they are also at work within us, or our brain creates independently of the cosmic laws, in which case it is superfluous to search among the latter, since we can neither comprehend nor perceive them. But I believe that our brain (to the extent that we can comprehend the cosmos with it and with our other comprehending faculties—intuition, feeling, etc.) certainly functions according to the laws of the cosmos, even if it is not identical with it, and permits us to comprehend and perceive only whatever is in the cosmos. (“Hauer’s Theories,” 212)

Schoenberg presupposes a “natural” alliance between the human mind and the universe, since the mind creates according to the same “universal laws” that govern the “cosmos.” Again, there is an implicit opposition drawn between the “natural” workings of the mind and the “nature” of the external world that must be mastered. Finally, by the time of “Composition with Twelve Tones (I)” in 1941, Schoenberg would align the artist with the powers of a divine creator, no longer subordinate to the laws of the cosmos:

A creator has a vision of something which has not existed before this vision.

And a creator has the power to bring his vision to life, the power to realize it.

In fact, the concept of creator and creation should be formed in harmony with the Divine Model; inspiration and perfection, wish and fulfillment, will and accomplishment coincide spontaneously and simultaneously. (215)

While composers are not “divine” and must still travel the “long path between vision and accomplishment” in order to “materialize one’s vision” into an “organism,” the human creator nonetheless creates musical forms anew, out of the senseless material of nature, which seemingly has no positive existence until it is transfigured into artistic form by the labor of the composer (215).

Bartók’s music undoes the aesthetic ideal of mastery over an intractable external world through the work of the human mind. In Bluebeard’s Castle and other compositions, nature becomes precisely that which cannot be possessed, and the fantasy of total control over nature is persistently subverted by the strange, meaning-resistant agency of nature itself. Contra Schoenberg, the “material” of nature is not the mute substance that must be molded into form by the artist, but the site at which existing musical forms meet with resistance and new modes of musical meaning are generated. In Bluebeard’s Castle, Bartók thinks of nature in terms of its dissonance, otherness, and incongruity with human modes of being. In so doing, he exposes the limitations of both the fetishization of folk music as a medium of accessing an unspoiled, pre-modern ideal of nature and the twentieth-century avant-garde’s emphasis on the construction of “new” musical forms (or “art” music) through which to express the domination of nature (which also corresponded with a clear disdain for folk music). For Bartók, new forms do not arise out of the mind of the “creator,” but out of the aggregation of older forms with avant-garde compositional principles.

Bartók’s musical innovations engaged directly with questions of ecological being in the world, and particularly, ecological being in relation to objects. The uneasy integration of folk and art music forms, in Bluebeard’s Castle and several of Bartók’s other compositions (The Wooden Prince, 1917; The Miraculous Mandarin, 1926; Cantata Profana, 1930; and the three piano concertos of 1926, 1931, 1945, for example), becomes both a means of crafting a new musical idiom as well as a new understanding of nature not in terms of “romantic nostalgia” for some lost unity, but of the nonidentity and otherness of nature in relation to human being.[6] The object, for Bartók, becomes the medium through which nature achieves articulation, as that which is inassimilable to human modes of understanding and representation. Paradoxically, nature becomes most active and most agential through the medium of inorganic, “immortal” (but never “inanimate”) matter, or the object (a theme that New Materialist theory would explore nearly a century later).

Ecology and Music

In Philosophy of New Music (1948), Theodor Adorno claims that modernist music defined itself by a self-conscious refusal of reconciliation: “At a historical hour, when the reconciliation of subject and object has been perverted to a satanic parody, to the liquidation of the subject in the objective order, the only philosophy that still serves reconciliation is one that scorns the illusion of reconciliation.”[7] While upholding Adorno’s rejection of “the illusion of reconciliation” in an age when absolute reconciliation is not possible, I want to explore how rethinking material agency can help us craft ecologies rooted in a refusal of the idea that the only modes of subject-object relation are either false reconciliation or subjective liquidation within an indifferent objective order.[8]

Ecology has had a fraught relation to matter, or to the object, ever since the inception of the term. Coined in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist and philosopher, “ecology” conjoins the Greek “oikos” (place, home) with “logos” (order, count), suggesting that our knowledge of “place” or world can only proceed by way of understanding our relations to what Haeckel calls the “organic” and “inorganic . . . conditions of existence.”[9] Ecology is defined as the “housekeeping” relations of organic life to its organic or inorganic conditions of existence, but this leaves out the inverse relation, the relation of “inorganic” matter to the “organic” world (or even to the inorganic world). Objects, in this formulation, are excluded from ecology. Additionally, because Haeckel strives for a “mechanistic” understanding of all the relations between an organism and its environment, he brackets out the question of nonhuman agency, and supposes that it is possible to achieve a complete understanding of the dynamic and world-reconstituting powers that nonhuman entities exert.

The task of ecological thought, one might argue, is to de-mechanize the logos [λόγος] of “ecology” and to bring it back into dialogue with the nonhumans that it has traditionally excluded. Heraclitus’s pre-Aristotelian formulation of logos provides a precedent here. For Heraclitus, logos refers not to an order or accounting or house-keeping defined by human beings, but rather to an otherworldly law that is inaccessible to humans, or at least inaccessible through traditional modes of knowledge. Heraclitus writes, “Though this [logos] is true evermore, yet men are as unable to understand it when they hear it for the first time as before they have heard it at all.”[10] In Charles Kahn’s words, the logos, or world order, “speaks to men as a kind of language they must learn to comprehend. . . . [T]he direct experience of the nature of things will be like the babbling of an unknown tongue for the soul that does not know how to listen.”[11] In Bruno Latour’s terms, “The logos in fact never speaks in a clear voice: it looks for words, it hesitates, it stammers, it starts over.”[12] Heraclitus describes his own activity as “dividing each thing according to its nature, and showing how it truly is” through the paradoxical and gnomic forms of wisdom given in the Fragments (“Fragment 2,” 146). Edward Minar, in “The Logos of Heraclitus,” suggests a close relationship between logos and things, claiming that “logos has the double sense of meaningful human speech and the meaning which lies in things. Things speak to us, as it were. . . . It means not only that which man says but that which speaks to man.”[13] Finally, logos is also “a power which pilots the world,” a power that is perhaps found in the thingly material of the cosmos (Minar, “Logos of Heraclitus,” 326).

In this sense, “ecology” has always been about objects, about grasping towards some ordering principle upholding the universe that is also inherent, though perhaps ultimately inaccessible, in the objects we encounter. In Heraclitus’s “Fragment 93”: “They are estranged from that with which they have most constant intercourse” (153). Focusing on the strangeness and indeterminateness of logos can help us rethink the post-structuralist insistence on defining logos almost exclusively in relation to logocentrism, as the supposedly unmediated and direct “truth” or “reason” that is accessible through the “presence” of speech but missed by the “trace” of writing or discourse.[14] Rather than identifying logos with a regressive “metaphysics of presence,” a liberated (and “estranged”) logos can be read as the very opposite of meaning-granting presence. Logos throws presence into question because the laws governing both the composition and identity of objects and our modes of relation to them are inaccessible through the traditional forms of the understanding. This rethinking of logos inheres in Bartók’s expression of the ecological relationship between objects and humans in Bluebeard’s Castle. If ecology is a form of “housekeeping,” in Haeckel’s formulation, a way of trying to order one’s external surroundings, then the castle of Bluebeard’s Castle gives us an instance of an ecological “home”/oikos governed by an alien logos that resists reduction to human modes of understanding. We might refer to the dissonant sonic expression of logos in Bluebeard’s Castle, then, as “logo-sonic expression.”

Bartók’s investment in the sonorousness of nature goes back to the earliest stages of his career. “To be able to work,” Bartók writes in a 1907 diary entry, “one must have a zest for life, i.e., a keen interest in the living universe. One has to be filled with enthusiasm for the Trinity . . . of Nature, Art, and Science” (Béla Bartók Letters , 82). For Bartók, the peasant cultures of Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and other parts of Eastern Europe were the cultures most attuned to nature, which manifested itself most directly through their folk music. According to Bartók, peasant folk music, which he spent much of his life collecting, recording, transcribing, and working into his compositions, “must be regarded as a natural phenomenon; the forms in which it manifests itself are due to the instinctive transforming power of the community entirely devoid of erudition. It is just as much a natural phenomenon as, for instance, the various manifestations of Nature in fauna and flora.”[15] (This fetishistic statement about peasant music, however, should not be taken completely at face value, since Bartók’s use of folk music was more complicated than just a representation of an unspoiled manifestation of nature, as will be discussed shortly.) Additionally, Bartók attempted, in pieces like the Out of Doors piano suite of 1926 and the three piano concertos, to capture the tiny noises of nocturnal creatures, such as nightingales, frogs, insects, and other nonhuman beings that escape normative modes of human hearing. In this sense, Bartók’s integration of folk rhythms and styles and nonhuman sounds into his music, as Maria Anna Harley argues, can be read as an attempt to recapture and represent in music the vanishing of a harmonious vision of nature.[16]

But in another sense, Bartók’s music consistently foregrounds the impossibility of fully enfolding the natural world into the composition, an impossibility resulting from the idea that the natural world is beyond human understanding, and moreover, that the natural world has never been “natural” in itself. In Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (2005), Tsing cautions that the categories of “‘indigenous’ people and ‘wild’ nature” are “modernist categories in negation,” which come into existence only with the onset of modern landscapes in which variety is “subjugate[d]” for the “cause of regularity, hygiene, property, efficiency, and profit” (160). For this reason, “any generalizations we make about [indigenous people and wild nature] are likely to be wrong. We quickly ascend to a world of fantasy every time we imagine tribal survival or spirituality, or wild nature’s competitive struggle or harmonious stability” (160). In this interpretation, since nature can only be conceived as the “negation” of modernity, nature in itself is something unknowable, despite the imposition of concepts like “harmony” or stability upon it—nature does not coincide with our concepts of it, including the concept of the “natural.” (Schoenberg’s split between a “natural nature” of the human mind and an alien nature of the external world is relevant here.)

Béla Bartók, First Violin Concerto (1907), Movement I.
Fig. 1. Béla Bartók, First Violin Concerto (1907), Movement I.

For Bartók, musical dissonance became a way of registering the incongruity between social and natural worlds, the unnatural-ness of nature, and, in Bluebeard’s Castle, the incongruity between human and nonhuman modes of sound and being. “Mine is the realm of dissonances,” Bartók wrote in a letter to Stefi Geyer (Béla Bartók Letters, 81). Dissonance, for Bartók, was also related to the integration between folk and “art” musical forms. In nearly all of his compositions, from the 1904 Rhapsody for piano and orchestra and the First Violin Concerto of 1907 (unpublished in his lifetime) to his mature works like the Concerto for Orchestra (1943) and the Third Piano Concerto (1945), Bartók refused simply to insert traditional peasant folk melodies into the works, but believed that modern music had to let itself be pervaded by the atmosphere of peasant music. As Elliot Antokoletz notes, the “fusion” of folk and art music elements in Bartók’s works “was to result in a highly complex and systematic network of divergent chords and scales. Bartók’s comments regarding the means by which he derived his harmonies from modal folk melodies suggest a link between the folk-music sources and certain procedures associated with serial [twelve-tone] composition.”[17] In an essay titled “The Folk Songs of Hungary,” Bartók notes that folk forms that employed “free use of the augmented fourth, the diminished fifth, and of [modal] chords” allowed for the development of a style of music in which “many different chords are obtained and with them the freest melodic as well as harmonic treatment of the twelve tones of our present-day harmonic system.”[18] Antokoletz further emphasizes that the “new concept of the relations contained in the chromatic continuum” that emerged here was not simply in line with the “Germanic tradition of the atonalists,” but offered a new, previously unheard, synthesis of folk and art forms involving the distortion of each.[19] For example, in the case of the First Piano Concerto (1926), Bartók distorts the folk music model, getting rid of its most basic elements, such as continuous quarter-note motion, and twisting structural parts of the melodies out of their natural relation.[20] In this sense, Bartók’s nature (including the idea of a nature rooted in peasant culture) speaks only in the language of dissonance, through the modes of sound that prevent the formation of harmonic closure and the dominance of traditional modes of tonality, while refusing the separation between so-called “primitive” folk music and modern art music.

Jim Samson, in “Music and Nationalism: Five Historical Moments” (2007), helpfully summarizes this dynamic relation between folk and art music in Bartók’s works:

Folk music was not used here as an agent of romantic nostalgia, as in the early nineteenth century, nor of national heritage gathering, as in the later nineteenth century. Rather it was a means of confronting what Adorno once described as that “rupture between the self and the forms” that characterises modernity. The folk material, and the “natural community” it signifies, are brought into direct confrontation with the dead forms, so to speak, of an increasingly fragmented Western art-music tradition. . . . Thus, Bartók’s attempted synthesis of these two very different musics may indeed forge a new and integrated musical language, but in doing so it does not hide the fractured character of the components of that language.[21]

Following Samson (and Adorno), there is no simplistic integration (or “reconciliation”) of folk and art musical forms, or of the pre-modern “natural community” of folk forms and the alienation of modern musical forms. Further, the notion of “nature” that emerges here is beyond a simple conflict between “communion” with and alienation from nature. Bartók wrote about the ways in which peasant folk music regularly employs complex polyrhythmic and harmonic phrases that were challenging even for professional orchestras at the time to play, suggesting that so-called primitive music actually contained ultra-modern rhythmic and harmonic tendencies.[22] In an essay on Hungarian peasant folk songs, Bartók writes:

I also mention the quite incredible rhythmic variety inherent in our peasant melodies. We find the utmost conceivable free, rhythmic spontaneity in our parlando-rubato melodies; in the melodies with a fixed dance rhythm the most curious, most inspiring rhythmic combinations are to be found. It therefore goes without saying that this circumstance pointed the way to altogether novel rhythmic possibilities for us. (Essays, 338)[23]

Any version of a primitive, unspoiled “nature” to be found here is bound up with Hungarian folk music’s status as a source for avant-garde compositional strategies and its resistance to simplistic determinations as “pre-modern” or “primitive.”

For Bartók, situated amidst the “realm of dissonances,” dissonant nonhuman sounds and motifs were ways of challenging the form-giving powers of the artist and rejecting reconciliation between human and natural worlds. As early as 1907, Bartók’s first violin concerto attempted to liberate dissonant notes from the oppression of harmony. In a letter to Stefi Geyer, Bartók writes: “One day last week I suddenly came to this apparently indisputable necessity, as if by some magic impulse, that your piece could only consist of two movements. Two opposing images: that is all. Now I am just amazed that I did not see this truth before. One’s eyes are so rarely opened” (Frigyesi, Béla Bartók, 149). Instead of harmonic closure, Bartók wants two “opposing images” that remain unharmonized and unresolved (fig. 1 and fig. 2).

Béla Bartók, First Violin Concerto (1907), Movement II.
Fig. 2. Béla Bartók, First Violin Concerto (1907), Movement II.

Bartók produces an irreconcilability at the center of the concerto: the emotional sweetness of the first movement is countered by the chaotic frenzy of the second, without any third term or movement to mediate these contradictory forces. In Bluebeard’s Castle and other of his later works, Bartók would apply this idea of non-reconciliation not only to the relations between human beings, but also to the relation between human and nonhuman worlds, and specifically, to human and object being.

Sounding Logos, or Logo-Sonic Expression

Bluebeard’s Castle is an experimental one-act opera, based on a folk tale first popularized in writing by Charles Perrault in 1697, but predating its publication by centuries.[24] In Perrault’s version, Duke Bluebeard marries a woman and brings her to his castle, but forbids her to enter one room: the innermost chamber. When the woman’s sister visits, they enter the forbidden room, and there find the corpses of Bluebeard’s previous wives. The woman’s brother arrives to murder Bluebeard and rescue the wives. In other versions, the wives are held captive rather than murdered, and the woman forms a pact with the captive wives to slaughter Bluebeard themselves. Either way, Bluebeard is a clear antagonist that must be killed, whether by the captive woman herself or someone else. In Bartók’s version, based on a libretto written by Béla Balázs, the story becomes less a tale of antagonism between good and evil forces (no murders take place in this version) and more a meditation on the loneliness of its human characters, non-reconciliation (of Bluebeard and Judith, of the castle and the human characters), and on the dynamic materialization of the castle itself. In the opera, Bluebeard brings Judith to his castle, and she continually insists on bringing “light” to the darkness of the castle by opening each of its rooms in succession to allow light to shine on what has formerly remained hidden. Each room, containing a different set of objects, from weapons to gold to gardens, forests, and lakes, as well as the blood that stains each object, sounds in a different way, and each object becomes shot through with a form of dissonance that challenges the mind’s ability to bring these objects into the realm of understanding, or of light. Dissonant objects, beginning with the castle itself, become the noisy forces that prevent a harmonious enclosure of nonhuman worlds within the realm of human knowledge.

The opera begins amidst a dialectic that seems like a constitutively irresolvable one: this is the dialectic between the theme of the castle, in a pentatonic F# minor mode, and the C tonality of light that emerges afterwards. The pentatonic theme of the castle is based on a scale common to European folk music, and common as well to modes of music prior to seventeeth- through nineteenth-century modes of harmony.[25] This theme is neutral, with no distinct rhythm, and no notes that deviate from the scale. As such, it seems to mark the castle as the neutral background for the action of the opera, as the environment into which the characters, Bluebeard and Judith, enter (3:16–4:09) (fig. 3).

Béla Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle (1918), opening pentatonic theme.
Fig. 3. Béla Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle (1918), opening pentatonic theme.

The castle theme, throughout the opera, is associated with darkness, nothingness, and the lack of motion, qualities which become ascribed both to the being of the castle and to Bluebeard himself, who, like the castle, attempts to prevent Judith from entering its rooms.

The C-tonality based “light theme,” a more complex, rhythmically involved theme based on changing dynamics and a Hungarian gypsy scale, is associated with Judith (who wants to bring light to the castle’s dark interiors), and emerges as a contrast to the pentatonic theme  (4:10–4:23) (fig. 4).[26]

Béla Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle, “Light” theme.
Fig. 4. Béla Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle, “Light” theme.

C-tonality becomes associated with light, knowledge, and understanding in the opera—whenever a new room or new set of objects is revealed, we hear a version of this theme, which I will call the “revelation motif” (4:24–4:33) (fig. 5).

Béla Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle, “Revelation” motif.
Fig. 5. Béla Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle, “Revelation” motif.

Judit Frigyesi refers to the light theme as the “dolce-marcato” theme because of Bartók’s instructions that the theme is to be played both “dolce” (sweetly) and “poco marcato” (slightly emphatic or accented) (Béla Bartók, 255). These seemingly contradictory indications suggest that the performers can play the sixty-fourth notes either as an “ornament[ed]” component of the main phrase or as what Frigyesi calls “a sharp accent representing shuddering” (255). In either case, the quivering motion of the light theme provides a stark contrast to seemingly static and non-developmental pentatonic theme of the castle.

The tonality of light, C major, we notice, is disharmonious with the F# tonality of the dark castle: the notes played together form an augmented 4th, just short of a perfect fifth, the triadic interval that most Western notions of harmony are based on. Light and knowledge are inharmonious, in other words, with the being of the castle; this is the drama around which the entire opera will revolve, condensed into the first opening themes, the first two minutes, before we even hear a singing human voice. The stage directions for the opening specify that while the pentatonic castle theme is playing, the stage remains dark.[27] And when the light theme emerges, light enters the visual field, but in a way that leaves the characters still shrouded in darkness: “Suddenly the small iron door at the head of the stairs is flung wide, and in the dazzling white opening appear the black, silhouetted figures of Bluebeard and Judith” (Bartók and Balázs, Bluebeard’s Castle, 3).

In one sense, we can think of the pentatonic castle as just a static background for the action of the characters, an oikos gradually unshrouded by a light-bringing logos. The opening use of the pentatonic scale harkens back to the pre-seventeenth-century musical world, before the dominance of traditional triad-based tonality; it can be thought as a kind of primordial origin for the music of the opera, the theme out of which all sound is generated. In another sense, however, the castle assumes a dynamic role in the interrelation of nonhuman and human worlds by setting up the (logo-)sonic idiom by which dissonance will become legible: dissonance comes into being once the C tonality-based light theme emerges, but this dissonance would not exist without a contrasting theme. C-major is typically a key associated with “songs of mirth and rejoicing,” given as “[c]ompletely pure” and characterized by “simplicity, purity, naivety, children’s talk,” as well as “express[ing] feeling in a pure, certain, and decisive manner.”[28] In Haydn’s Oratorio, The Creation (1798), a C-major chord (emerging out of a C-minor background) accompanies the singing of the word “Light [Licht]” to cement the association of C tonality with light. In Bluebeard’s Castle, however, the castle’s F#-minor theme has the effect of distorting the C-tonality based light theme into something troubling and discordant.[29] Like the uneasy integration of folk and art music, the dissonance produced by the interaction between the two themes determines the castle itself as antithetical to light, to knowledge, and to the mechanisms of human understanding that attempt to contain or harmonize it. (Note that even when light emerges, the characters remain “silhouetted,” as if still unable to extricate themselves from the “total darkness” of the castle’s being.) In this sense, what the interaction between the two themes gives us is both an aesthetic of non-reconciliation and a new mode of relation (or simply of being-with) based on this irreconcilability.

But the co-created production of dissonance is not the only way in which the castle’s strange materialization unfolds. Carl Leafstedt notes that Bartók, in his revisions to the original score (for the 1917 performance), modified one of Judith’s lines about the castle to suggest an ambiguous state of being between objecthood and personhood. While the original has Judith hearing the sound of the castle sighing and exclaiming, “Ahh!—What was that? What sighed?” the revision adds to this series of questions, “Who sighed?”[30] Throughout the opera, the castle not only “sighs,” but sweats, weeps, bleeds, and sounds in various ways. For example, one of Judith’s first lines upon entering the castle is, “The walls are sweating. Tell me, Bluebeard—why this moisture on my fingers? Walls and rafters, all are weeping” (Bartók and Balázs, Bluebeard’s Castle , 13). Judith both seeks and provides a causal explanation for the presence of “moisture,” which she surmises emanates from the castle itself (later, we will see that this “moisture” may be “blood” dripping from the walls). As the bringer of light to the “total darkness” of the castle, Judith conceives of herself as a body entering into relation with the castle’s body as she imagines how she will confront and eventually conquer its darkness: “I shall dry these weeping flagstones, with my own lips they shall be dried./ I shall warm this icy marble, warm it with my living body” (13). The conflict initially unfolds as one between two bodies—Judith’s and the castle’s—that exist in opposition to one another in physical terms: wet/dry, cold/warm. However, Judith’s subsequent lines shift the idea of light from the material category of “warmth” to the more abstract idea of “brightness”: “I shall brighten your sad castle./ You and I shall breach these ramparts./ Wind shall blow through, light shall enter, light shall enter,” she subsequently sings in a clear C-major based tonality (20–21). From here on, until Judith’s eventual entombment within the castle, light is figured as abstract knowledge that attempts to uncover (violently at times) the alien logos of the castle.

This conflict between the C tonality of light and the F# minor of the dark castle is central to the rest of the opera, because within the castle, and within each of its rooms, the castle’s objects continuously sound in ways that remain inharmonious with the singing of the characters and with their attempt to make sense of the objects, to bring light to them. The opera revolves around the opening of a series of doors, leading to the inner chamber of the castle. Each time a door is opened, new knowledge is discovered, new objects come to light, literally, and enter the perceptual space of the characters. When, for example, the first of seven doors, to the “torture chamber,” is opened, Judith shrieks at the sight of “shackles, daggers, racks, and pincers/ Branding irons!” (23). To mark the presence of these objects, we hear trills and fragments of a scale, like the sound of chains rattling. This is an “inhuman” sound, according to Frigyesi, because it is sound that is “cut off from a melodic progression,” or that does not totalize into a recognizably harmonious phrase, but remains at the level of fragmented sound, or what we might call “noise” (18:49–19:16) (fig. 6) (Béla Bartók, 279). Here and elsewhere (the armory, the treasure chamber, the gardens and forests), the castle’s clamorous things impress themselves upon the hearing consciousness, and demand the recomposition of traditional modes of hearing and understanding into a form that is capable of recognizing, or at least apprehending, nonhuman expression.[31]

Béla Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle, “Opening of the first door (Torture Chamber).”
Fig. 6. Béla Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle, “Opening of the first door (Torture Chamber).”

The castle’s objects bleed dissonance. In the stage directions, the wall of the torture chamber contains “a blood red rectangle in the wall like an open wound. A red glimmer comes from deep within, throwing a long beam across the floor” (Bartók and Balázs, Bluebeard’s Castle, 44). The wound can be read as both the potential source of the “moisture” on the walls in the earlier scene, and as a marker of an injury done to the castle by the light that penetrates its first room. Once Judith sees the actual objects in the torture chamber, the “shackles, daggers, racks, and pincers/ Branding irons!”, she also notes that they are covered in blood: “Look, your castle walls are blood-stained!/ Look, the walls are bleeding . . . bleeding . . . bleeding . . .” (23, 46). This gives rise to the first explicit instance of the opera’s “blood motif”: to mark blood, Bartók uses a minor second interval, G#-A, that (as a chord) is almost the definition of dissonant sound within a Western music scale.

It turns out that all of the objects Judith encounters behind each of the doors—the instruments of torture, the weapons in the armory, the gold coins of the treasury, and the flowers, trees, and lakes of the garden—are stained with blood. When Judith remarks that the torture chamber’s walls are dripping blood, we hear the G#-A blood motif of the opera, which recurs every time a new door opens to reveal a new set of bloody objects. Tonally, Judith sings “Jaj!” (“Woe!”) in an E, while the flutes, oboes, and xylophone play alternating scalar fragments between A# and E and between A# and E#. At the same time, the first violins split into two tremolo phrases, with one set playing B and the other an A#, giving another variation of the minor second interval (B-A#). Similarly, the clarinets play another minor second trill between D and C# (unmarked in the reduced version of the score cited here). The first scalar fragment, which culminates in an E, lies within the tonal frame of Judith’s cry (an E), while the second scalar fragment deviates from it by a single half-step (reaching to E#). Before Judith begins her cry, then, the violins and clarinets are already sounding the dissonant intervals through which the objects present themselves.

Additionally, Judith’s tonal E becomes immediately incorporated into the minor second expressed by the scale fragments (which reach an alternating pitch ceiling between E and E#). The noisy torture implements, in other words, transform Judith’s E from a tonal note to one incorporate with the dissonant realm of the torture chamber. For the remainder of this scene, Judith’s singing becomes more and more unmoored from tonality as it wavers between chromatic descent and intervallic leaps. When she returns to the anchoring E to remark upon the “bleeding” walls, the trumpets (and the oboes, unmarked in the reduced version of the score cited here) are already sounding the G#-A blood motif, and upon her singing of the words “bleeding,” the French horns play a D#-E interval (also unmarked in the reduced version cited here) that again distorts Judith’s E into the realm of dissonant expression  (19:50–20:24) (fig. 7). The blood motif continues in the armory (second door), where Judith discovers all of the “arms and armour,—countless battle weapons . . . spears and daggers” to be “blood-stained,” and in the garden (fourth door), where the flowers are similarly covered in blood (Bartók and Balázs, Bluebeard’s Castle, 56, 59). Here and elsewhere, the (logo-)sonic agency of the castle and its objects is given as the power to repel the knowledge-creation associated with the C tonality of light.

Béla Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle, Judith: “Look your castle walls are blood-stained!”
Fig. 7. Béla Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle, Judith: “Look, your castle walls are blood-stained!”

Carl Leafstedt also notes another closely related motif of the castle, which he calls the “sigh motif” (Inside Bluebeard’s Castle, 77). This emerges whenever Judith is about to open a new door of the castle, starting with the torture chamber. As Judith pounds on the first door, the stage directions specify: “The sound is answered by a cavernous sighing, as when the night wind sighs down endless, gloomy labyrinths” (Bartók and Balázs, Bluebeard’s Castle, 29). Like the blood motif, the sigh motif employs half-step melodic motion, yet ventures beyond the blood motif’s starker-sounding minor second interval. As Leafstedt notes, Bartók leaves the first sound of the sigh unspecified, and up to the director to fill in however they may.[32] The second time the castle sighs, however, it is given a specific melodic motif articulated by woodwind instruments (18:13–18:50) (fig. 8). It is only given musical expression for the first time when it is “heard again,” suggesting that the sigh we are given is the representation, or perhaps the echo, of an unheard, and perhaps unrepresentable, initial sound.

Béla Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle, “Sigh” motif.
Fig. 8. Béla Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle, “Sigh” motif.

The 32nd-note pattern, half-step melodic motion, and the soft decrescendo of each articulation collectively express the castle’s sigh as a less directly oppositional motif than the blood motif’s jarring minor second. The dissonance of the minor second interval here is more contained, more subdued, as if the castle is sounding a cautionary motif of what may happen if the characters continue their unwanted exploration of its inner being. At the same time, the sigh motif also produces a sense of anticipation that drives the characters forward in their pursuit of knowledge, as if the castle is using the characters to unfold further layers of its being.

Throughout the opera, the castle carries an identification with Bluebeard, who sings in the same F#-minor tonality that opens the opera and expresses the darkness of the castle. However, the castle is not reducible to a possession of Bluebeard’s (despite the title of the opera), and these moments of dissonant expression (of blood, tears, and sighs, moments that depart from any stable notions of tonality) suggest a form of dynamic being distinct from Bluebeard’s. Bluebeard is alternatively identified with the castle and with Judith, as he joins her in her desire to open more doors of the castle and bring light/knowledge to it, seemingly against the wishes of the castle itself.[33] Additionally, the blood of the castle, which is seemingly interchangeable with the “moisture” Judith initially notices, and thinks of as both “tears” and “sweat,” is linked with the blood, sweat, and tears of Bluebeard’s former wives, who are entombed in the castle. As Bluebeard reveals towards the end: “They have gathered all my riches, they have bled to feed my flowers, they have enlarged my kingdom” (Bartók and Balázs, Bluebeard’s Castle, 65). The suffering and the labor of the wives becomes articulated through the dissonant clamor of the blood and sigh motifs. The presence of blood on the objects also marks a form of human-object relation, as the interaction between human history—the histories of gendered violence, ecological violence, and warfare—and the history of the objects that bear these legacies within them. At the end of the opera, the wives are presented to us as objects themselves: mute, abjected figures chained to the walls and fully absorbed into the environment of the castle. Each captive wife stands in for a different time of day: morning, afternoon, evening, and with Judith’s eventual imprisonment at the end of the opera, midnight.

Near the beginning of the opera, before any doors are opened, Judith intimates not only that the castle is “deep in shadow” and unavailable to the understanding, and that it has a being outside of what she and Bluebeard can comprehend, but also on its physical acts of “sweating,” “weeping,” “sighing,” and later, “bleeding.” As Judith sings:

All who come here cease their gossip. All the rumors hushed in silence. . . . / Everything lies deep in shadow! The walls are sweating. / Tell me, Bluebeard—Why this moisture on my fingers? Walls and rafters, all are weeping. (10–11)[34]

Later, she sings, “I heard your castle sighing . . . a sigh of anguish,” prompting the sounding of the sigh motif. The suffering of the captive wives is given expression through the medium of the castle, into which the wives have been absorbed. As Judith sings the line, “The walls are sweating,” she begins on an A, while the orchestra’s horns play the blood motif interval of G#-A. By giving us the blood motif even before the appearance of blood in the opera, and before we know anything of the captive wives, Bartók makes the blood’s origin unclear: is it the tears and blood of the castle itself, as the walls sweat, weep, and bleed, or is it the tears and blood of the wives that we see staining the objects? Or is it simply that the two have become inseparable from one another, so that the blood of the castle and the blood of the wives are one and the same phenomenon?

In this sense, objects are entangled with human beings in a quite literal way, but this entanglement can only be expressed through dissonant sounds and motifs. Dissonance, again, is not just internal to the objects themselves, but something that emerges through the interaction between humans and objects, through the attempt to impose “light” upon the logos of objects. There is a parallel, or at least a relation, to be drawn here between Bartók’s discordant integration of folk and art music and the discordant integration between human and object being in Bluebeard’s Castle. In each case, dissonance emerges as the gap that prevents a full, harmonious reconciliation between entities. As with the concept of “nature” in peasant folk music, the ecological world of the castle is not a fantasy realm of unspoiled, pre-modern nature, but rather a thoroughly modernized nature that is enmeshed with human histories and the legacies of violence and oppression to which both the objects of the castle and the entombed wives bear witness.

But this dissonance, it seems, is clearly directed against light, against the forms of knowledge-production that would reduce the castle and its objects to the constraints of the understanding. In this sense, we can read the continual movement of the characters into the inner chambers of the castle not as a process of discovery (or bringing to light) on the part of the characters, but rather as the castle employing the human characters as a vehicle through which to unfold the content of its own being. In this reading, human characters uncover the histories of violence and oppression that have become sedimented into the castle, into its walls, into its objects, into the captive women that have become violently converted into objects, but this is a process that is determined by the castle itself as it leads the characters deeper into its own recesses and inner chambers. The sigh motif that anticipates and even drives forward the progression of the characters into the inner being of the castle is performed by the sounding castle itself. Human beings would then become the backdrop against which the castle sounds, or expresses the logo-sonic being of itself and its objects, which achieve articulation through their differentiation from human voices, sounds, tonalities, and light-based logoi.

A Darkening oikos

After Judith is entombed along with the other wives, integrated into the castle as another of Bluebeard’s victims, darkness descends upon the stage and the orchestra’s two opening themes re-emerge: the pentatonic F# minor castle theme plays alongside the C tonality of light, but as it does, each melody begins breaking down and dissolving into its constitutive parts, until they both disintegrate, respectively, into a single note and a single dyad  (1:03:39–1:04:45) (fig. 9).

Béla Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle, “The ending of the opera.”
Fig. 9. Béla Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle, the ending of the opera.

The F# minor theme slowly dissolves into a single note, a C#, while the “light” theme dissolves into a pair of notes, an A and a B# (enharmonically, a C) that, according to Frigyesi, “faintly points towards C tonality,” even as it is ultimately unable to reach it: in this dyad, the A seems to drag the B# away from its enharmonic pitch and away from a full articulation of light, as a C, to close the opera (Béla Bartók, 288). Correspondingly, the C# into which the castle theme degenerates is one half-step (a minor second) above a C. What this final dissolution of the two themes into an A-B# dyad and a single C# gives us, then, is two notes that border C, but do not fully reach it. They do not reach light, in other words. We end, then, with the degenerated remnants of two irreconcilable themes that, together, bring into being a darkness that is not simply one half of the opposition between light and dark, but a darkness that stands as the refusal of dialectical mediation itself. The persistence of the castle theme’s C# to close the opera further suggests the triumph of darkness, since this note is a minor second removed from the light-bringing C.

The opera’s final gesture, then, gives us a grasping towards some kind of anchoring tonality, towards some minimal degree of light that would bring object and human worlds into the terms of the understanding, but it ultimately fails, and leaves both characters and castle in the midst of an all-swallowing night. This is not a primordial or pre-modern darkness, but an active, dynamic darkness born out of the sonic entanglement between human and object worlds that resists any reconciliation between knowledge/light and the castle’s being/darkness. Nature, contra Schoenberg, is that which cannot be “forced” into aesthetic form by the labor of the artist; instead, it is a sonorous force in itself that resists encapsulation by the human understanding and resists the inscription into the “organic” whole of the composition. The castle, like nature itself, remains strange, unknowable, and nonidentical, shrouded in a darkness that is not the absence or the negation of light, but the positive presence of a noisy and knowledge-distorting dissonance that ensures, and continually enacts, the unknowability or strangeness of the strange.[35] Darkness, in other words, becomes the gap that prevents the meeting between human understanding and the environmental world of the castle and its objects.

Schoenberg presupposes a “natural” alliance between the human mind and the external world (or the “cosmos”): we can know, understand, and implement the laws of the universe because we can know the laws of our own minds, which are identical with the cosmos. Bartók’s dissonant ecology becomes a decidedly unnatural way of understanding the thingly powers of the natural world, or the “cosmos.” The “total darkness” and “night forever” of the conclusion of the opera perhaps suggest not an end to being, since both Bluebeard and Judith are still alive by the final curtain, albeit entombed (Judith) and enveloped in darkness (Bluebeard and Judith both), but an end to the work of understanding, which is now helpless against the darkness of non-reconciliation that shrouds Bluebeard, Judith, and the castle by the end. But perhaps this shrouding lays the ground for a new ecology, in which humans and nonhumans are thrust into a co-inhabitated oikos unmediated by light and knowledge. Body and matter are both immortal, as Bartók’s letter to Geyer has it, and Bartók’s and Balázs’s version of the Bluebeard tale does not, unlike most iterations of it, end in murder. Avoiding the logics of both reconciliation and subjective liquidation, Bluebeard’s Castle prophecies a clamorous entanglement between humans and nonhumans, a new logos, in which darkness is not a regression to nothingness but a path towards a shared and dissonantly co-sounded oikos.


Notes

[1] Béla Bartók, Béla Bartók Letters, ed. János Demény, trans. Péter Balabán and István Farkas (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), 81.

[2] Heraclitus, “Fragment 93,” trans. John Burnet, in “Herakleitos of Ephesos,” in John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1908), 143–91, 153.

[3] See Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003); Donna Haraway, Staying With the Trouble (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015); Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, ed. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 197–222; Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), Elizabeth Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

[4] Arnold Schoenberg, “Theory of Form,” in Style and Idea: Selected Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 253–54, 253.

[5] Arnold Schoenberg, “Hauer’s Theories,” in Style and Idea: Selected Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 209–12, 209–10.

[6] Jim Samson, “Music and Nationalism: Five Historical Moments,” in Nationalism and Ethnosymbolism: History, Culture, and Ethnicity in the Formation of Nations, ed. Athena S. Leoussi and Steven Grosby (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 61.

[7] Theodor Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, trans. Robert Hullot-Kenner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 25.

[8] In this vein, see Serpil Opperman, “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism,” in Material Ecocriticism, ed. Serenella Iovino and Serpil Opperman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 21–36.

[9] Ernst Haeckel, Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (1866), quoted in Robert C. Stauffer, “Haeckel, Darwin, and Ecology,” Quarterly Review of Biology 32, no. 2 (1957): 138–44, 140.

[10] Heraclitus, “Fragment 2,” in Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, 146.

[11] Charles Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 107.

[12] Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 183. Emphasis in original.

[13] Edward L. Minar, “The Logos of Heraclitus,” Classical Philology 34, no. 4 (1939): 323–41, 333. Additionally, according to Minar, “the word λόγος [logos] is simply the verbal noun from λέγω [lego], which means primarily ‘gather, collect,’” as well as “count” and “say, speak” (323). Similarly, the German Ding, as noted by Martin Heidegger, means both “thing” and “a gathering together.”  

[14] This reading of logos, according to Adriana Cavarero, has its origins in Jacques Derrida’s misreading of logos in Plato’s Phaedrus. Contrary to Heraclitus’ version of an indeterminate logos, the Socrates of the Phaedrus presupposes two logoi, one “legitimate” and the other “illegitimate,” separating the logos that is grounded in “science” [episteme] and reason, or “the living, breathing logos of the one knows,” from the logos that is based on the order of “writing,” as a “simulacrum” [eidolon] of the true logos. However, this distinction does not, as Derrida claims, turn on a differentiation between speech (as presence) and writing (as trace), but rather on a difference between the fullness of the “idea,” which cannot be fully encapsulated by speech or writing or any other forms of earthly discourse, and the “simulacrum” of human communication. Logos must be “devocalized,” or emptied of the quality of the unique voice of the embodied speaker of words, according to Cavarero, in order to “coincide[e] with the visible and mute order of ideas.” (Adriana Cavarero, For More than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression, trans. Paul A. Kottman [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005], 229–32, 232). Self-presence, or “auto-affection,” then, is not a singular property of logos, but only a part of the logos associated with the realm of pure ideas, the logos that does not and cannot manifest itself in speech or writing or any other form of human communication except through the aporetic suspension of worldly meaning. See also Mladen Dolar’s critique of Derrida’s presumption of a phonocentric bias in Western metaphysics in A Voice and Nothing More. Writes Dolar, “There exists a different metaphysical history of voice, where the voice, far from being the safeguard of presence, was considered to be dangerous, threatening, and possibly ruinous” (A Voice and Nothing More [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006], 43).

[15] Quoted in Judit Frigyesi, Béla Bartók and Turn-of-the-Century Budapest (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 106. Emphasis in original.

[16] See Maria Anna Harley, “‘Natura naturans, natura naturata’ and Bartók's Nature Music Idiom,” Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientarium Hungaricae, T 36, Fasc. 3–4 (1995), 329–49.

[17] Elliot Antokoletz, The Music of Béla Bartók: A Study of Tonality and Progression in Twentieth-Century Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 1.

[18] Béla Bartók, Essays, ed. Benjamin Suchoff (London: Faber and Faber, 1976), 338.

[19] Elliot Antokoletz, The Music of Béla Bartók: A Study of Tonality and Progression in Twentieth-Century Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 2.

[20] See Frigyesi, Béla Bartók, 128.

[21] Jim Samson, “Music and Nationalism: Five Historical Moments,” in Nationalism and Ethnosymbolism: History, Culture, and Ethnicity in the Formation of Nations, ed. Athena S. Leoussi and Steven Grosby (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 61.

[22] According to Nicky Losseff, Bartók, writing about the “limited nature of Western classical training,” noted that “the members of a ‘rather good orchestra’ had been ‘helpless’ in the face of ‘Bulgarian’ additive rhythms which, in contrast, ‘most Bulgarian pupils have . . . in their blood’” (“The Piano Concertos and Sonatas for Two Pianos and Percussion,” in The Cambridge Companion to Bartók, ed. Amanda Bayley [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001], 118–32, 129).

[23] Further, Antokoletz claims that “[t]he folk tunes themselves showed Bartók new ways of harmonization. . . . He found that the [Hungarian] peasants, in their oral musical tradition, naturally tended to transform the elements of their music, giving rise to numerous variants of one or another melody” (Music of Béla Bartók , 27).

[24] All subsequent time-stamps refer to this recording. György Kroó notes that the tale

can be traced back, on the one hand, to Gilles de Laval, Baron of Rais, who lived in the fifteenth century, and, on the other, to the figure of the Breton feudal lord Comorre, who lived in the sixth century. . . . [Some] have . . . found connections [to the “wife-killer” Bluebeard] in the fairy tales of many different peoples, among them the Hungarian tale of Márton Ajgó, who lured Anna Molnár to beneath the tree on which he had hanged his former lovers. (“Opera: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” in The Bartók Companion, ed. Malcolm Gillies [London: Faber and Faber, 1993], 349)

[25] Antokoletz notes that Bartók drew heavily on the “pentatonic scale” as “the basis of the oldest of the Hungarian peasant tunes” (Music of Béla Bartók, 27).

[26] Frigyesi writes:

Contrary to the empty sound of the fourth and second intervals of the first theme, this theme is based on “sweet” thirds in both the melody and harmony and performed dolce with changing dynamics. The theme uses the minor scale with augmented second—the most chromatic of the traditional scales, often associated with verbunkos [a style of music used for military recruitment performances, rooted in the popularized gypsy music of Hungary] and gypsy style (G, F sharp, E, D sharp, C; and B, A in the lower voice). (Bela Bartók, 255)

[27] Béla Bartók and Béla Balázs , Bluebeard’s Castle, Op. 11, 1918 (New York: Universal Edition A.G., 1921), 2.

[28] Jean-Philippe Rameau, Treatise on Harmony, trans. Philip Gossett (1722; Mineola, NY: Dover, 1971), 164; Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, “Ideas Towards an Aesthetic of Music,” trans. Ted Alan DuBois (PhD diss., University of Southern California, 1983), 433; Ernst Pauer, The Elements of the Beautiful in Music (London: Novello and Company, 1877), 25. 

[29] Bartók pays homage to this association during the opening of the fifth door (to Bluebeard’s “kingdom”), when Judith sees light and, “dazzled by the radiance,” exclaims “Ah!” in a sustained C. This entire scene is dominated by C tonality, until the opening of the next (sixth) door returns the characters (and the opera) away from C tonality and back to the darkness of the castle’s interior (here, the “pool of tears”) (Bartók and Balázs, Bluebeard’s Castle, 43).

[30] Carl Leafstedt, Inside Bluebeard’s Castle: Music and Drama in Béla Bartók’s Opera (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 64.

[31] Here I am drawing on Judith Butler’s distinction between “apprehension” and “recognition” in Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (2009). “Recognition,” for Butler (drawing on a Hegelian tradition), is about categorizing another being within a framework of norms around what constitutes a subject (naming the “being” of the subject, in other words). “Apprehension,” on the other hand, “is less precise, since it can imply marking, registering, acknowledging without full cognition. If it is a form of knowing, it is bound up with sensing and perceiving, but in ways that are not always—or not yet—conceptual forms of knowledge.” (Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? [London: Verso, 2009], 2–5).

[32] See Carl Leafstedt, Inside Bluebeard’s Castle, 77–78.

[33] Frigyesi notes that, during the opening of the fifth door (to Bluebeard’s kingdom), Judith’s and Bluebeard’s roles temporarily reverse, with Judith retreating into a measured, detached, eighth-note ostinato rhythm while Bluebeard begins singing in a pleading, emotionally involved, “waltzlike” rhythm (Béla Bartók, 242).

[34] In Bartók’s and Balázs’s Hungarian original: “Ki ezt látna, jaj, nem szólna, Suttogó hir el hatkulna. / Milyen sötét a te várad! Vizes a fal! Kékszakállú. Milyen viz a hull a kezemre? Sir a várad! Sir a várad!

[35] According to Ernő Lendvai, in The Workshop of Bartók and Kodály (1983), “The world concept of Bartók is dual—it is not light and not dark, but light and dark, always together in an inseparable unity—as if polarity were the only framework in which dramatic or spiritual content could manifest itself. . . . Bartók takes up the thought of darkness dialectically into that of light, and vice-versa—the two presuppose and justify each other” (The Workshop of Bartók and Kodály [Budapest: Editio Musica Budapest, 1983], 220). However, this interpretation is somewhat at odds with Bartók’s persistent refusal of dialectical mediation between light and dark, and between human and nonhuman being, at both a tonal (F# vs C tonality) and a thematic level (the effacement of C tonality at the end and the shrouding of the castle and its characters in darkness).