BARTOK: The Miraculous Mandarin
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Bela Bartok (1881-1945)
The Miraculous Mandarin Dance Suite Hungarian Pictures
Stage music plays a relatively brief but crucial r??le inthe work of Bela Bartok. Having finished the one-actopera Duke Bluebeard's Castle in 1911, he composedlittle until the summer of 1914, when he embarked onthe ballet The Wooden Prince. Completed two yearslater, its premi?¿re at the Budapest Opera in 1917 wasone of the composer's few great successes in hislifetime. The company proceeded to stage the opera thefollowing year, but it met with an equivocal receptionand was withdrawn after eight performances, not to beheard again in Hungary for almost two decades.
An even worst fate awaited Bartok's last stagework,the pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin. Begunas the third part of an intended triple bill, it was draftedin 1918-19 but only orchestrated five years later. Apartfrom its composer's ongoing uncertainty as to musicaldirection, the scenario by Menyhert Lengyel wasunlikely to pass muster with the Hungarian censor. Thework was finally given its first performance in Cologneduring 1926, but banned immediately on moral grounds(by the then Mayor of the city Konrad Adenauer) and notstaged again in Bartok's lifetime. Although an orchestralsuite consisting of almost the first two-thirds of the workquickly found a place in the modern orchestralrepertoire, the pantomime has only latterly come into itsown, and full stagings remain infrequent. As withStravinsky's The Rite of Spring, to which it is indebted incertain particulars, The Miraculous Mandarin has a rapidpace and density of musical incident which are difficultto render visually, and indeed are probably bestappreciated by the 'mind's eye'.
As envisaged by Lengyel, a recipient of Freudianpsychoanalysis and Hungary's chief Expressionistwriter, the scenario is more concerned with mimed thandanced drama, hence the designation 'pantomime'rather than 'ballet', and focuses on the irreconcilabilityof intuitive nature and corrupt civilisation. The latter isaccorded graphic depiction in the Introduction, whereinsistent rhythmic patterns and grinding dissonanceevoke the sound of traffic in a busy thoroughfare. Thecurtain 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, eachintroduced by a clarinet solo. The first sequence lures ashabby old rake (denoted by trombone glissandi), who,penniless, is summarily ejected by the gang. The secondsequence 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 luresthe mandarin, his exotic appearance vividly evoked bybrass.
There follows an extended sequence in which thegirl gradually overcomes her repugnance towards themandarin, embarking on a waltz which mounts inurgency as the latter's responses become moreimpulsive. A chase ensues (fugato in strings, woodwind,then brass), building an unstoppable momentum andcurtailed only when the thugs pounce on the mandarin.
Robbing him of his possessions, they make threeattempts to kill him, a dramatic and musical parallel tothe three lurings: first they suffocate him under thebedding, but to no avail; then they stab him, only forhim to break free and rush at the girl; finally, they hanghim from a light fitting, whereupon his body begins toglow with 'greenish-blue' light (wordless chorus). Onlynow does the girl realise what must happen. Themandarin is duly taken down and his embracereciprocated; satiated, his wounds begin to bleed and,with a series of shudders, he dies.
Before resuming work on The MiraculousMandarin, Bartok enjoyed considerable success with apiece written ostensibly for 'official' purposes. TheDance Suite was one of three commissions, along withKodaly's Psalmus Hungaricus and Dohnanyi's FestiveOverture, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the unionof Buda and Pest as the Hungarian capital. Firstperformed in November 1923, its clear-cut manner musthave seemed out of keeping with Bartok's musicalthinking up to that time, but the fusing of a range of folkcharacteristics was to have increasing significance inthe works that followed.
The suite opens with a Moderato dance, itssyncopated repetitions denoting a North Africaninfluence. The bitter-sweet Hungarian ritornello thatfollows is to reappear after each of the subsequent threedances, binding the work together musically andculturally. The Allegro molto second dance is largelyMagyar in origin, then the Allegro vivace third dancevigorously alternates Hungarian and Romanianinfluences. The sensuous Molto tranquillo fourth danceis oriental - more specifically, Arabic - in origin, whilethe brief Comodo fifth dance is designated of \primitivepeasant character". It remains for the Allegro finale toimpart overall unity by alluding to earlier dances andtraditions: after a final return of the ritornello, the workconcludes with a decisive confirmation of theindivisibility of peoples and musics.
The folk inferences of Bartok's maturity were to bedeployed according to the nature of the work at hand.
Some of the most immediately attractive examples arefound in the numerous suites that he orchestrated fromearlier piano pieces. One such is the HungarianPictures, assembled in 1931 from piano musiccomposed over two decades earlier, during the period,in fact, of his first intensive involvement with folkmusicresearch. The poignant An Evening with theSzekely (as the Hungarian natives of Transylvania areknown) and energetic Bear Dance are both drawn fromthe Ten Easy Pieces of 1908, while the plaintive Melodythat follows derives from the Four Dirges of 1910. Theappropriately titled Slightly Tipsy originally comes fromthe Three Burlesques of 1911, then the dashingSwineherd's Dance, drawn from the extensive four-partcollection For Children, completed in 1909, and the onedemonstrably authentic folk-song included here, bringsthe sequence to a lively and engaging close.Richard Whitehouse