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ClassicsOnline Home » BARTOK, B.: Miraculous Mandarin (The) / Concerto for Orchestra (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
With its bizarre story of moral corruption and violence, Béla Bartók’s final stage work, The Miraculous Mandarin, was banned after the first performance in 1926. Richly scored, it has a breathtakingly rapid pace, its nightmarish scenes depicted with vibrant and graphic musical intensity. The Concerto for Orchestra is one of Bartók’s last works and one of his best known and most accessible creations. Each of the five movements plays its own rôle, but the overriding message is a potently expressive affirmation of life.
Béla Bartók (1881–1945)
The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók was born in 1881 in an area that now forms part of Romania. His father, director of an agricultural college, was a keen amateur musician, while it was from his mother that he received his early piano lessons. The death of his father in 1889 led to a less settled existence, as his mother resumed work as a teacher, eventually settling in the Slovak capital of Bratislava (the Hungarian Pozsony), where Bartók passed his early adolescence, counting among his school-fellows the composer Ernő Dohnányi. Offered the chance of musical training in Vienna, like Dohnányi he chose instead Budapest, where he won a considerable reputation as a pianist, being appointed to the teaching staff of the Academy of Music in 1907. At the same time he developed a deep interest, shared with his compatriot Zoltán Kodály, in the folk music of his own and adjacent countries, later extended as far as Anatolia, where he collaborated in research with the Turkish composer Adnan Saygün.
As a composer Bartók found acceptance much more difficult, particularly in his own country, which was, in any case, beset by political troubles, when the brief post-war left-wing government of Béla Kun was replaced by the reactionary regime of Admiral Horthy. Meanwhile his reputation abroad grew, particularly among those with an interest in contemporary music, and his success both as a pianist and as a composer, coupled with dissatisfaction at the growing association between the Horthy government and National Socialist Germany, led him in 1940 to emigrate to the United States of America.
In his last years, after briefly held teaching appointments at Columbia and Harvard, Bartók suffered from increasing ill-health, and from poverty which the conditions of exile in war-time could do nothing to alleviate. He died in straitened circumstances in 1945, leaving a new viola concerto incomplete and a third piano concerto nearly finished.
The Miraculous Mandarin
Stage music plays a relatively brief but crucial role in the work of Béla Bartók. 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 premiere at the Budapest Opera in 1917 was one of the composer’s few great successes in his lifetime. The company proceeded to stage the opera the following year, but it met with an equivocal reception and was withdrawn after eight performances, not to be heard again in Hungary for almost two decades.
An even worse fate awaited Bartók’s last stage work, 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 in Bartók’s lifetime.
Although an orchestral suite consisting of almost the first two-thirds of the work quickly found a place in the modern orchestral repertoire, the pantomime has only latterly come into its own, and full stagings remain infrequent. As with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, to which it is indebted in certain particulars, The Miraculous Mandarin has a rapid pace and density of musical incident which are difficult to render visually, and indeed are probably best appreciated by the ‘mind’s eye’.
As envisaged by Lengyel, a recipient of Freudian psychoanalysis and Hungary’s chief 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 introduced by a clarinet solo. The first sequence lures a shabby old rake (denoted by trombone glissandi), who, penniless, is summarily ejected by the gang. The second sequence lures a shy young man (oboe and cor anglais), whose waltz with the girl suddenly gains in ardour until, also penniless, he is ejected. The third sequence lures the mandarin, his exotic appearance vividly evoked by brass.
There follows an extended sequence in which the girl gradually overcomes her repugnance towards the mandarin, embarking on a waltz which mounts in urgency as the latter’s responses become more impulsive. A chase ensues (fugato in strings, woodwind, then brass), building an unstoppable momentum and curtailed only when the thugs pounce on the mandarin. Robbing him of his possessions, they make three attempts to kill him, a dramatic and musical parallel to the three lurings: first they suffocate him under the bedding, but to no avail; then they stab him, only for him to break free and rush at the girl; finally, they hang him from a light-fitting, whereupon his body begins to glow with ‘greenish blue’ light (wordless chorus). Only now does the girl realise what must happen. The mandarin is duly taken down and his embrace reciprocated; satiated, his wounds begin to bleed and, with a series of shudders, he dies.
Concerto for Orchestra
The Concerto for Orchestra is among Bartók’s last works. It was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in 1943 in memory of the wife of the distinguished conductor Sergey Koussevitzky, Nathalie, and received its first performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitzky in December 1944. The work displays the virtuoso talents of different sections of the orchestra, using devices of textural and dynamic contrast, thus justifying its title.
Bartók himself wrote of the gradual transition of the work from the severity of the first movement, to the third with its song of death, and to the finale with its reassertion of life. The second movement varies this progress by treating pairs of instruments in different harmonic intervals, a light-hearted interlude. Contrapuntal possibilities are explored in the first movement, while the third has the air of a folksong, coupled with the mood of night-music that was part of the composer’s musical language. A fragment of the Seventh Symphony of Shostakovich interrupts the Intermezzo, by way of parody, while the last movement contrasts the perpetual motion of the violins with a fugal subject.
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