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Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19

About the Work

Béla Bartók
Quick Look Composer: Béla Bartók
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Matthias Goerne, bass-baritone & Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano / Music of Bartók Mar. 8 - 10, 2012
© Peter Laki

Bartók composed the pantomime A csodálatos mandarin ("The Miraculous Mandarin") in 1918-19 and orchestrated it in 1923-24, revising it in subsequent years.  Bartók and composer-pianist György Kósa played a part of the score in a pinao-duet version on Hungarian Radio on April 8, 1926.  The first performance of the complete pantomime took place on November 27, 1926, in Cologne under the direction of Eugen Szenkár.  In 1927, Bartók extracted a suite from the ballet.  The suite was premiered by the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Ernst von Dohnányi.

The suite from The Miraculous Mandarin runs about 20 minutes in performance.  Bartók scored the suite for 3 flutes (third doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (third doubling English horn), 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons (fourth doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (large and small side drum, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, xylophone), celesta, harp, piano, organ, and strings. 

A duke, a prince, and a mandarin-all three of Bartók's stage works are about men bearing noble titles and inhabiting fictitious worlds (legend, fairytale, or a hypothetical modern city).  All three can be understood, accepted, or loved by women only under extreme circumstances (if at all).  Each of the three works, however, treats this same basic problem in widely divergent ways.  The Wooden Prince has a happy ending, all obstacles having been removed between the Prince and the Princess.  But in Bluebeard's Castle both characters-the Duke and Judith-become victims of a total lack of understanding between man and woman.  At least in The Miraculous Mandarin, the protagonist dies happy, having embraced the girl; but it is tragic that he can only find fulfillment in death.

The one-act play The Miraculous Mandarin by Menyhért (Melchior) Lengyel struck a deep nerve in Bartók, who decided to set it to music as soon as he had read it in the literary magazine Nyugat ("The Occident").  Lengyel (1880-1974) was a successful Hungarian playwright who later worked in Hollywood for years, writing screenplays for Greta Garbo, among others.  The Miraculous Mandarin abounded in gruesome details which had extremely adverse consequences for the performance history of Bartók's pantomime.  However, these should not prevent us today, 70 years later, from seeing the intense drama which arises from the fatal conflict between trivial everyday experience and something that transcends it.

The action of the pantomime is summarized in the score as follows:

In a shabby room in the slums, three tramps, bent on robbery, force a girl to lure prospective victims from the street.  A down-at-heel cavalier and a timid youth, who succumb to her attractions, are found to have thin wallets and are thrown out.  The third "guest" is the eerie Mandarin.  His impassivity frightens the girl, who tries to thaw him by dancing -- but when he feverishly embraces her, she runs from him in terror.  After a wild chase he catches her, at which point the three tramps leap from their hiding place, rob him of everything he has, and try to smother him under a pile of cushions.  But he gets to his feet, his eyes fixed passionately on the girl.  They run him through with a sword; he is shaken, but his desire is stronger than his wounds, and he hurls himself on her.  They hang him up, but it is impossible for him to die.  Only when they cut him down, and the girl takes him into her arms, do his wounds begin to bleed and he dies.

The setting is intentionally unappealing and there is a whole series of rather brutal episodes; yet the ending is truly cathartic.  This contrast, typical of expressionist drama, was emphasized even more strongly by Bartók, who was inspired by Lengyel's scenario to write one of his boldest scores.  In his harmonies, in his treatment of rhythm as well as orchestration, Bartók was at his most experimental here, coming closer than ever "to the aspirations of the Second Viennese School," as László Somfai stated in The New Grove Dictionary.

The music depicts the successive stages of the action with great vividness.  After a frenetic introduction which portrays the hustle and bustle of a large city, the curtain rises.  This moment is unmistakably indicated by the change in texture:  after an intense tutti, we hear only strings (over an insistent timpani roll), and the violas introduce the theme that begins the action.  The three tramps appear, one by one, looking for money everywhere in the sordid apartment.  When they can't find any, they order the girl who is with them to "stand by the window to lure men from the street for the tramps to rob."  (All quotations are from the scenic instructions included in the score.)  The girl will play her "decoy game" three times:  her seductive motions are rendered by a clarinet solo in rubato (free) rhythm.  Each time, the clarinet solo gets more involved and more agitated.

The first visitor, an old cavalier, enters.  His awkward gestures are musically expressed in humorous trombone glissandos.  He tries to woo the girl (mock-Romantic english horn and cello solos).  "The three tramps leap out from their hiding place, seize the old rake and throw him out" during a short Vivace section dominated by the repeated-note figures of the trumpets.  After a second "decoy game," "a shy young man appears in the door.  He is very confused.  The girl strokes him to encourage him and takes this opportunity to feel his pockets (‘Not a penny'), draws him towards her and dances -- at first rather shyly."

The young man is represented by a dreamy oboe solo; the dance begins with the entrance of the harp, with a theme played by bassoon and violin solos that for a brief moment is taken over by the full orchestra as "the dance becomes faster and more passionate."  Does the girl forget her role for a minute and become attracted to the youth?  At any rate, the tramps set her straight and quickly throw out the young man as the previous Vivace section returns in the orchestra.

The third decoy game leads to the appearance of "a weird figure in the street . . . immediately . . . heard coming up the stairs."  A menacing theme for trombones and tuba appears, based on a single descending minor third.  It is set against tremolos in the woodwinds and downward slides and glissandos for violins and piano -- the music seems to cry out in horror.  Someone is approaching who is positively outside the four characters' realm of previous experience.  The Mandarin enters the room to the ominous restatement of the descending minor third by the brass.

"General consternation. . . . The girl overcomes here repugnance and calls to the Mandarin:  ‘Why don't you come closer?'"  The music hesitates for a long time before the girl finally begins her dance.  Out of short melodic fragments played by solo woodwinds, a waltz theme gradually emerges.  It is symbolic that the waltz begins with the same descending minor third we heard earlier at the Mandarin's entrance.  "The dance gradually becomes livelier, as does the music, ending in a wild erotic dance.  The girl sinks down to embrace him; he begins to tremble in feverish excitement."  The waltz leads into an Allegro section dominated by an agitated trombone theme.  As the Mandarin begins his renzied chase after the girl, a wild fugato starts in the orchestra, to the thudding accompaniment of the low winds and percussion.  At the climactic point of the chase, the Mandarin catches the girl.  (The suite version, prepared by Bartók in 1927, ends at this point.) 

Over the years, The Miraculous Mandarin has been performed much more often in the suite version than on stage.  The work's troubles as a pantomime began as soon as it was completed, when the Hungarian State Opera refused to produce it.  In 1926, the Mandarin was staged at the Cologne opera, only to be banned after the first performance by the mayor of the city, Konrad Adenauer (who in 1949 was to become the first Chancellor of West Germany).  The Budapest Opera was scheduled to present The Miraculous Mandarin in 1931, in honor of Bartók's 50th birthday, but the premiere was cancelled after the dress rehearsal.  The pantomime was not seen in Budapest until 1946 (the year after the composer's death), but even then, it was not to remain in the repertoire for very long:  for a number of years after the Communist takeover in 1948, the work was again deemed unfit for the stage.  Since the 1960s, the pantomime has been firmly established as a staple of the Budapest opera as part of the Bartók triple bill.  In most other places, the last third of one of the most exciting Bartók scores is still insufficiently known.