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ClassicsOnline Home » BARTOK, B.: Miraculous Mandarin Suite (The) / BRAHMS, J.: Symphony No. 1 (London Symphony, Pasternack)
Béla Bartók’s pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin was banned after its first performance in 1926, but the composer’s orchestral suite quickly became a popular concert work, appreciated for its energetic rhythms and daring harmonies. Though facetiously dubbed ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’, Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 is also, in its own way, a no less revolutionary work which charts a journey from darkness to light from its brooding introduction to its euphoric finale. This splendid 2008 recording joins other fine LSO albums available from Naxos.
Béla Bartók (1881–1945): The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, Op. 19, BB 82
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897): Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Béla Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin Suite
Stage music plays a relatively brief though crucial rôle in the work of Béla Bartók (1881–1945). Having finished the one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle in 1911, he composed little until the summer of 1914, when he embarked on the ballet The Wooden Prince. Completed two years later, its première at the Budapest Opera in 1917 was one of the composer’s few notable successes during his lifetime. The company proceeded to stage Duke Bluebeard’s Castle the following year, but it met with an equivocal reception and was withdrawn after eight performances, not to be heard in Hungary for almost two decades.
An even worst fate awaited Bartók’s last stagework, the pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin. Begun as the third part of an intended triple bill, it was drafted in 1918–19 but only orchestrated five years later. Apart from its composer’s ongoing uncertainty as to musical direction, the scenario by Menyhért Lengyel was unlikely to pass muster with the Hungarian censor. The work was finally given its first performance in Cologne during 1926, but banned immediately on moral grounds (by the then Mayor of the city Konrad Adenauer) and not staged again until a Milan production in 1942 (by which time the ailing Bartók was resident in New York). Although an orchestral suite consisting of the first two-thirds quickly found a place in the orchestral repertoire, the pantomime has only latterly come into its own. As with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, to which it is indebted in certain particulars, The Miraculous Mandarin has a density of musical incident that are difficult to render visually and probably best appreciated by the ‘mind’s eye’.
As envisaged by Lengyel, a recipient of Freudian psychoanalysis and Hungary’s most significant Expressionist writer, the scenario is more concerned with mimed than danced drama—hence the designation ‘pantomime’ rather than ‘ballet’—and focuses on the irreconcilability of intuitive nature and corrupt civilisation. The latter is accorded graphic depiction in the Introduction, where insistent rhythmic patterns and grinding dissonance evoke the sound of traffic in a busy thoroughfare. The curtain rises on an upstairs room in a shabby apartment, occupied by three ruffians and a girl. Having no money, the thugs coerce the girl into attracting ‘passing trade’ . There follow three seduction sequences, each of them introduced by a solo clarinet. In the first sequence she lures a shabby old rake (denoted by trombone glissandi), who, penniless, is quickly ejected by the gang . In the second sequence she lures a shy young man (oboe and cor anglais), whose waltz with the girl suddenly gains in ardour until, also penniless, he is ejected . In the third sequence she lures the mandarin, his exotic appearance vividly evoked by the brass . There follows an extended section in which the girl slowly overcomes her repugnance towards the mandarin, embarking on a waltz which mounts in urgency as the latter’s responses become more impulsive . A hectic chase ensues (fugato in strings, woodwind, then brass), building an unstoppable momentum which is curtailed when the thugs decide to pounce on the mandarin : at which point, the suite ends.
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor
Brahms’s symphonic aspirations went back at least to the time when Robert Schumann in 1853 had introduced him to the musical world in his press article ‘New Paths’, in which he described Brahms’s piano sonatas as ‘veiled symphonies’ and publicly encouraged the young composer to write for larger forces. It took Brahms another 23 years and several attempts which led elsewhere before he fully came to terms with writing a symphony ‘after Beethoven’, as he put matters. This is the anxiety of influence, or perhaps better the responsibility of influence, writ large: how to make oneself a worthy part of a tradition one admires, how to respond to one’s chosen past with the originality and power it ineluctably demands. During composition of both the First Piano Concerto, Op. 15, and the First Serenade, Op. 11, Brahms thought of each work as a potential symphony, then in summer 1862 he showed the first movement of the First Symphony to friends, as yet without its slow introduction. While very little is known of his work on the symphony in the intervening years to 1876, it is clear from a remark of Tovey’s that Brahms found composing a suitable last movement particularly problematic. However, for her birthday in 1868 he sent Clara Schumann the alphorn theme which he later decided to use in the finale to such decisive effect. Although he titled the theme for her: ‘Thus the alphorn sounded forth today’, and gave it a poetic text, as far as we know, melody and poem are Brahms’s own. By the beginning of the next decade he seemed to have lost heart entirely, remarking to his friend the conductor Hermann Levi: ‘I shall never write a symphony! You have no idea what it feels like, for someone like me always to hear such a giant as Beethoven marching along behind’. Brahms completed the work in October 1876, very probably in part under felt competitive pressure from Wagner’s opening of Bayreuth and presentation of the first complete Ring Cycle. This symphony was the only work for which Brahms fixed a first performance before finishing the composition, and he delivered the score in instalments to his friend Otto Dessoff, who conducted the première on 4 November in the Great Hall of the Museum in Karlsruhe.
That year the University of Cambridge offered Brahms and his friend the violinist Joseph Joachim honorary doctorates. Brahms could not bring himself to visit England, so was unable to accept the honour. Joachim on the other hand came, and he performed Brahms’s Symphony at Cambridge on 8 March 1877. The early press reception in both countries was very warm, and recurrent points of focus were: the chambermusic aspect of the orchestral writing, speculation concerning a possible secret programme, and the relationship to Beethovenian heritage. This last issue became especially important for Wagner and his followers, for he maintained that after Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, only the Music Drama and Symphonic Poem could be justified in the realm of orchestral music. Thus Brahms’s competition with Wagner had its profound side, and his achievement in this symphony constitutes a reaffirmation and revitalization of the fourmovement purely instrumental symphony as a traditional form made new.
Brahms begins with a powerful slow introduction, in which chromatic lines in woodwind and strings diverge over relentless drum beats; this becomes a type of pre-thematic motto for the whole work—these sinuous chromatic lines surround the themes in the first movement, interrupt the sumptuous opening melody of the slow movement, punctuate the phrases of the intermezzo-like third movement, and reach their apotheosis in the dramatic introduction to the finale, where they are at last dismissed by the appearance of the alphorn melody. This evolution is emblematic of the narrative trajectory of the work as a whole: from darkness to light, from strenuous drama to triumphant joy. Brahms gives this narrative an extra dimension in the last movement: his customary practice was to write movements which diversify out from their opening by variation and extension; in this finale, on the other hand, he sets out by presenting a diverse range of material—the dark, foreboding introduction, the alphorn theme (a nature topos, of course), the brass chorale (an ecclesiastical topos), the march-like Allegro theme (a Beethovenian topos)—which, during the course of the movement, he proceeds to relate and integrate, before closing with surely the most overtly euphoric peroration he ever gave us, in musical (and personal) triumph.
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