Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Opus 11

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Opus 11

Béla Viktor János Bartók was born on March 25, 1881, in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania), and died September 26, 1945, in New York City. He composed Duke Bluebeard’s Castle in 1911, to a libretto by Béla Balázs. Egisto Tango conducted the first performance on May 24, 1918, at the Royal Hungarian Opera House. Antál Dorati led the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in the first North American performance on January 8, 1949. The first staged performance in the United States, sung in Chester Kallman’s English translation, was given by the New York City Opera on October 2, 1952. The only previous performances by the San Francisco Symphony were given in November 1981; Dennis Russell Davies conducted; Wolfgang Schoene sang the role of Bluebeard, and Katalin Kasza sang the role of Judith. The score calls for an orchestra of four flutes (third and fourth doubling piccolo), two oboes, English horn, three clarinets and bass clarinet, four bassoons (fourth doubling contrabassoon), four horns, four trumpets, four trombones, bass tuba, two harps, celesta, organ, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, tam-tam, cymbals, suspended cymbal, xylophone, triangle, and strings. Duration: about one hour.

The Background

Bartók composed his only opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, in 1911, and even before its rejection in a national competition, he knew that chances for its performance were slim. With his compatriot Zoltán Kodály, he had years earlier faced the difficulty of being recognized as a composer in Budapest. “With the Hungarian oxen—that is to say, the Hungarian public, I shall not bother any more,” he wrote his mother in 1907. Even when his music began to be published, he did not aim at a home market.

But Bartók’s native land still exercised considerable influence on him. Together with Kodály, he had already begun the studies of Hungarian folk music that would have such a profound effect upon his own compositional style and remain a continuing interest throughout his life. And in 1907 he accepted an appointment to the Academy of Music in Budapest, teaching not composition—since he was sure that devoting energy to the teaching of composition would adversely affect his own efforts as a composer—but piano. His tenure at the Academy would last some thirty years, remaining a principal means of support. And very early on, it offered something more: in 1909 he married the sixteen-year-old Márta Ziegler, who had entered his piano class two years earlier, to whom several of his compositions, including Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, would be dedicated, and with whom he remained until their divorce in 1923, when he would marry Ditta Pásztory, who had become a piano student of his a year or so before.

In 1911, the year Bluebeard was composed and rejected, Bartók and Kodály founded the New Hungarian Music Society as an outlet for their own music and that of their contemporaries; but, for lack of interest and support, the project soon proved a failure. In 1912 Bartók withdrew from public musical life, keeping his position at the Academy but otherwise devoting himself to his ethnomusicological studies. Not until 1916 would he complete another large-scale orchestral work. This was The Wooden Prince, a one-act ballet begun in 1914 and, like Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, based upon a libretto by the Hungarian poet-novelist-dramatist Béla Balázs. The premiere of The Wooden Prince on May 12, 1917, proved a critical and public success. It was led by Italian conductor Egisto Tango, active at the Budapest Opera from 1913 to 1919 and an advocate unlike any Bartók had known. A year later, on May 24, 1918, Tango conducted the first performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle—on a double bill with The Wooden Prince, as the composer envisioned.

Story and Stagecraft

The story of Bluebeard and his wives—the locked doors, the curious bride, the bride’s rescue or punishment once the hidden secrets have been revealed—can be found in the folklore of many lands, and in different versions. It was first printed in Charles Perrault’s 1697 Tales of Mother Goose. In the Perrault tale, Bluebeard, leaving home on business, entrusts his new wife with the keys to every room of his mansion, including one chamber that he expressly forbids her to open. In that room she finds the blood-encrusted remains of his former wives. Bluebeard discovers her disloyalty when he notices an ineradicable bloodstain that has appeared upon the chamber key; but before he can kill her, she is rescued by her brothers, who appear at the last moment and kill him.

A more immediate predecessor to the Balázs/Bartók Bluebeard was Maurice Maeterlinck’s drama Ariane et Barbe-Bleue (1901), conceived as a libretto, set to music by Paul Dukas (of Sorcerer’s Apprentice fame), and premiered in Paris in 1907. Dukas’s opera has fallen into neglect, but it is worth nothing that, in Maeterlinck’s version of the Bluebeard story, Ariane discovers Bluebeard’s five previous wives, frightened and bewildered, within the seventh locked chamber of his castle. Obeying laws “other than Bluebeard’s,” Ariane attempts to restore their sense of identity, but even after joining with them to protect Bluebeard from mob violence, she cannot convince them to leave. She departs alone, leaving her fears behind her (as one interpreter would have it) in the form of the previous wives.

Balázs’s one-act “mystery play”/libretto brings the story even further into the realm of symbolism and allegory by confining itself to the characters of, and relationship between, the two protagonists, Bluebeard and his latest wife, here called Judith. Following a spoken “minstrel’s prologue” (often omitted from concert performances but retained here), Bluebeard and Judith enter the cold, dark, windowless hall, where Judith will insist upon opening the seven locked doors she discovers there: She has come to him out of love, she will dry the damp, weeping walls, she will warm the cold stone, she will bring light into his castle and so into his life. To do this, she will ignore Bluebeard’s protests, she will ignore the rumors she has heard. At first he tries to discourage her, but upon handing over the keys to the third, fourth, and fifth doors, his attitude has changed: “Judith, do not be afraid, it is all the same now.” He even encourages her to open the fourth and fifth doors, though he does try to keep her from the sixth and seventh, finally revealing that behind the last door she will find “all the women of the past.” But by this point the situation is hopeless. Judith’s curiosity has driven her from the general to the particular: “Tell me Bluebeard, whom did you love before me? . . . Was she more beautiful than I? Was she different? . . . Open the seventh door! . . . There are all the past women, murdered, lying in blood. O, the rumors, the whispered rumors are true.” The seventh door is opened, and Bluebeard’s three former wives emerge, still living, the wives of his dawn, his noon, and his evening. Now Judith, his fourth, the bride he found at night, must join them behind the seventh door, leaving Bluebeard in perpetual darkness.

Though there is virtually no stage action, Balázs’s text specifies a range of theatrical effects that contribute to the emotional and psychological drama. The opera begins and ends in darkness; light and color play crucial roles. Yet Duke Bluebeard’s Castle also works convincingly in concert, since Bartók’s music is itself so strikingly apt from the standpoints of drama, psychology, and aural imagery.

Desmond Shawe-Taylor has written that the Bluebeard story “can be understood on many levels: as a foreshortened process of mutual discovery between two persons such as in real life would take many years” or also “as an allegory of the loneliness and solitude of all human creatures.” With reference to Bartók’s opera, Győrgy Kroó draws parallels to the qualities of the human soul: the first-door torture chamber represents cruelty, the armory represents life’s struggles, the treasure chamber represents spiritual beauty, the garden represents human tenderness, and Bluebeard’s domains represent human pride; behind the final two doors are tears and memories, which are not to be shared. But this is incidental to our appreciation of the music, for it is the music and the text to which we respond when we hear the opera performed.

The Music

Bartók’s opera is thoroughly Hungarian in mood and manner. The composer was determined to create an idiomatically Hungarian work, and he did this by letting the text itself determine the flow of his music, working in the so-called “parlando rubato” style (a sort of “flexible speech-rhythm”) that he arrived at through his studies of Hungarian folk music. In this regard, the late Budapest-born American musicologist Paul Henry Lang wrote that “Hungarian, like its nearest relative, Finnish, is an agglutinative language: The modifiers are attached to the ends of the words, with the stress invariably on the first syllable. Thus, the rhythms and inflections characteristic of the Magyar language, as well as its sound patterns, are wholly different from anything we are used to in English, German, French, or Italian. Bluebeard cannot be successfully sung in translation, because the foreign words’ rhythms and accents are constantly at odds with the music.”

As to the music itself, we are in an impressionistic world where the orchestra unerringly supports the mood, imagery, and language of the text. In the opening measures, Bartók sets out the crucial musical intervals, fourths and seconds, that fix in our ears the modal quality of his music. With the first entry of oboes and clarinets we hear a linearly stated minor second, which, in its dissonant vertical formulation (play an E and an F together on the piano, loudly), is the pervasive “blood-motif” of the opera, sounding with increasingly insistent intensity as Judith discovers the extent to which blood has tainted Bluebeard’s possessions, and piercing through the crescendo and crashing discord that accompany her final demand that the seventh door be opened. By way of contrast, there is music of utmost resignation, most tellingly employed when Bluebeard hands over the seventh key.

Striking individual effects abound: shrill outbursts of winds and xylophone over tremolo violins for the first-door torture chamber; martial brass, notably solo trumpet, for the armory; soft trumpet and flute chords, celesta, and then two solo violins for the gleam of the treasure chamber; impressionistic string chords and solo horn for the garden (with momentary suggestions of Wagner and Strauss); an awing and majestic chordal passage for full orchestra and organ for Bluebeard’s domains; hushed, dark-hued arpeggios from celesta, harp, and winds, with timpani undercurrent, for the lake of tears. And, overall, the music mirrors the subtle psychology of Bluebeard’s and Judith’s relationship, echoing and enforcing their changes of mood and attitude, ultimately emphasizing the degree to which they have grown apart. At the end, Bluebeard addresses his former wives “as if in a dream,” virtually heedless of Judith’s presence; and when he adorns her with robe, crown, and necklace, her protestations are distant and hopeless. Finally, when the seventh door closes behind her, the music returns to the ominous texture of the opening; darkness once more envelops the stage.

Marc Mandel

Marc Mandel is Director of Program Publications of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His note on Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is used here courtesy of Mr. Mandel and the Boston Symphony, in whose program book a longer version of this note originally appeared.


Director Nick Hillel uncovers the process of developing his semi-staged production of Bartók’s operatic masterpiece for the concert hall

The brief was to develop a concept for a semi-staged production of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. The initial question for my team and me was how to present a metaphor of a castle representing a man’s psyche into a transportable show, integrating visuals within a live performance whilst involving a full orchestra on stage. We wanted to avoid using a screen towering above the musicians, a device that might dwarf the stage and overpower the music. Instead, we were looking for a projection surface that linked to the stage and enveloped the musicians, providing a more immersive audience experience.

What then evolved was a motorized shape that could shift and unlock with each opening door in the castle. A “shape” that would appear to unfurl and open like a strip of origami. This opening mirrors Judith’s journey through multiple doors as she penetrates deeper into the castle’s darkest reaches, stripping bare Bluebeard’s soul until, at the denouement, the “shape” finally enfolds her like a carnivorous flower enticing and trapping its prey.

The next challenge was how to sit this evolving “shape” concept within a number of different projection screens and surfaces. Splitting screens in this way would, we hoped, help the audience overcome any disorientation from simultaneously focusing on performers and screens. Ideally, the audience’s perception of the artists, orchestra, and screens should be integral.

This design was realized by building turret shapes into the castle walls, each turret providing an individual projection surface. The two contrasting colors, of white on a central shape and the dark gray of the castle walls, were designed to embody the strong theme of duality in the light and dark, good and evil of the narrative.

Having multiple screens also allowed us to utilize sophisticated projection-mapping software called “catalyst,” which enabled us to mask our image and project onto different areas of the set throughout the performance. We were also able to shift and stretch the live projection area in real time to follow the changing “shape” suspended above the orchestra, a technique that has rarely been used before.

Almost all of the seven rooms were filmed and visualized from a close-up, macro perspective. This was partly motivated by reference to the narrator’s words in the prologue, encouraging the members of the audience to look more closely and use their imaginations (“the curtain of our eyelids is raised”) to create their own visual ideas from our more abstract take on the treatment of each room. We wanted the visuals to embody the essence of the music and motif of each room without, necessarily, resorting to literal representations, with each open door revealing elements evoking the feelings of the narrative. Examples are the stretching and grinding mechanisms of the torture chamber; the uniform mechanical tension and overriding sense of strength and power in the armory; the dazzling opulence of the treasury; the expansive power and might of the all-encompassing kingdom; the lush, sensual garden; the sad, reflective, and delicate pool of tears. All underpinned by a dark and unsettling undercurrent of foreboding.

For the wives’ room shoot we gathered a number of women of varied ages into a studio. Their silhouettes were filmed behind a frosted screen to soften the edges of the shadows. The intention was to convey a sense of all of Bluebeard’s past lovers spanning a lifetime. These wives are more beautiful than any woman Judith has ever seen because they represent only the best aspects of his former lovers, shorn of reality’s imperfections.

As Judith takes her place alongside the former consorts, she becomes yet another of Bluebeard’s idealized memories and challenges the audience to consider to what extent the drama they have watched unfold is purely psychological, bringing us full circle to the narrator’s opening words: “Where did this happen? Outside, or within?”

—Nick Hillel

More About the Music

Recordings: Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry, with István Kertész and the London Symphony Orchestra (London/Decca Legends)  |  Elena Zhidkova and Willard White, with Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live)  |  Tatiana Troyanos and Siegmund Nimsgern, with Pierre Boulez and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Sony)

Reading: The Life and Music of Béla Bartók, by Halsey Stevens (Oxford University Press)  |  The Music of Béla Bartók, by Elliott Antokoletz (University of California Press)  |  The Bartók Companion, edited by Malcolm Gillies (Amadeus)  |  Béla Bartók and Turn-of-the-Century Budapest, by Judit Frigyesi (University of California Press)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Bartók, edited by Amanda Bayley (Cambridge University Press)  |  Bartók and His World, edited by Peter Laki (Princeton University Press)

(June 2012)