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8.557433 - BARTOK: Miraculous Mandarin (The) (Complete Ballet) / Hungarian Pictures / Dance Suite
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Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
The Miraculous Mandarin • Dance Suite • Hungarian Pictures

Stage music plays a relatively brief but crucial rôle 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 première 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 The company proceeded to stage the opera the following year, but it met with an equivocal reception and was withdrawn after eight performances, not to be heard again in Hungary for almost two decades.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 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 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.

Before resuming work on The Miraculous Mandarin, Bartók enjoyed considerable success with a piece written ostensibly for ‘official’ purposes. The Dance Suite was one of three commissions, along with Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus and Dohnányi’s Festive Overture, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the union of Buda and Pest as the Hungarian capital. First performed in November 1923, its clear-cut manner must have seemed out of keeping with Bartók’s musical thinking up to that time, but the fusing of a range of folk characteristics was to have increasing significance in the works that followed.

The suite opens with a Moderato dance, its syncopated repetitions denoting a North African influence. The bitter-sweet Hungarian ritornello that follows is to reappear after each of the subsequent three dances, binding the work together musically and culturally. The Allegro molto second dance is largely Magyar in origin, then the Allegro vivace third dance vigorously alternates Hungarian and Romanian influences. The sensuous Molto tranquillo fourth dance is oriental – more specifically, Arabic - in origin, while the brief Comodo fifth dance is designated of “primitive peasant character”. It remains for the Allegro finale to impart overall unity by alluding to earlier dances and traditions: after a final return of the ritornello, the work concludes with a decisive confirmation of the indivisibility of peoples and musics.

The folk inferences of Bartók’s maturity were to be deployed according to the nature of the work at hand. Some of the most immediately attractive examples are found in the numerous suites that he orchestrated from earlier piano pieces. One such is the Hungarian Pictures, assembled in 1931 from piano music composed over two decades earlier, during the period, in fact, of his first intensive involvement with folkmusic research. The poignant An Evening with the Székely (as the Hungarian natives of Transylvania are known) and energetic Bear Dance are both drawn from the Ten Easy Pieces of 1908, while the plaintive Melody that follows derives from the Four Dirges of 1910. The appropriately titled Slightly Tipsy originally comes from the Three Burlesques of 1911, then the dashing Swineherd’s Dance, drawn from the extensive four-part collection For Children, completed in 1909, and the one demonstrably authentic folk-song included here, brings the sequence to a lively and engaging close.

Richard Whitehouse

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