Monday, June 23, 2008

Bartók and The Miraculous Mandarin

Though it hasn't been an endeavor of mine, I suppose occasional bouts of topical interest will come and group a week's posts under a particular theme. If last week was for mental health, let this one be for music. Today I post an excerpt from a program note I wrote on Béla Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin.

In 1918, amid the shambles of postwar Hungary, Béla Bartók (1881-1945) began work on his pantomime A csodálatos mandarin (The Miraculous Mandarin). When both Sergei Dyagilev, the famous choreographer of Stravinky’s The Firebird and Petrouchka, and Ernő Dohnányi passed over Melchior Lengyel’s short story of murder, mystique, and passion, Bartók took it upon himself to compose a setting for the piece. In just eight months, Bartók had completed a short score sketch of the piece; its final orchestration was completed in 1924, and on November 27, 1926 the pantomime received its first performance in Cologne, Germany.

The graphic tale is told in one act and centers on the ruse of three thieves, who, using the sexual appeal of a young girl, lure passers-by into a room to be beaten and robbed. On this particular night, two penniless victims have left the thieves without a bounty, until an oriental mandarin is coaxed inside. A certain eeriness surrounds the man as his gaze remains fixed on the girl, but the thieves force her to continue with the plan in spite of her fright. The suspense builds through a sexually-charged dance until at last the thieves leap from their hiding to attack the man. When the mysterious figure doesn’t respond to the blows, the thieves, desperate to kill the man, drive him through with a sword and then hang him, but he remains alive and transfixed on the girl. When he is cut down, the girl, under great remorse, throws herself on the mandarin and gives herself to him. At last the mandarin is satisfied by love’s ecstasy, his wounds begin to bleed, and he dies.

The work, with its lurid and controversial subject matter, proved to be too much for a city already rife with political unrest. Even among a growing number of works displaying a wild expressionism with violence, sex, and psychological overtones, the work was, as Bartók had predicted, not well received. The headlines of the local Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger read “Uproar in the Cologne Opera House,” while the Kölnische Volkszeitung (The People’s Newspaper) denounced the conductor Eugen Szenkar as a “partisan of the young, radical trend in music, [… aimed] to drive back German romantic opera more and more.” Szenkar was summoned to the mayor’s office the following day and ordered to withdraw the remaining performances of the work. Over the following years, Bartók revised the work as an orchestral suite, resulting in a more palatable but, in his opinion, a less-satisfying version.

The work opens with the material of the original pantomime’s overture. John Mangum of the Los Angeles Philharmonic describes it as “a striking portrait of the unsettling dynamism and vigor of the seedier side of the modern urban landscape.” With violas representing the thieves’ restlessness and a seductive clarinet solo, the young girl’s explicit dance, Bartók seizes upon individual instrument qualities to pull the listener through the story. In a truly unique ensemble, he mixes the timbres of harp, celeste, piano and organ with colors of traditional orchestral instruments. Bartók’s innovative orchestration is evident throughout the work. At one point, the string players hit the wooden backs of the bows on their strings, resulting in a sort of click-clacking signifying the approach of the first victim. The rhythmic energy is constant and unrelenting, and though it persists for the larger part of 20 minutes, it never becomes excessive or monotonous. Indeed, an audience member at the first performance, if not prepared for the macabre and jarring content, might easily be overwhelmed by such a brash and unapologetic display of what many considered coarse obscenity.

-Taylor Baldwin

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