Bartók: Suite from The Wooden Prince

Suite from The Wooden Prince: A Dancing-Play in One Act by Béla Balázs, Opus 13 (ed. Peter Bartok and Nelson O. Dellamaggiore)

Béla Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania, on March 25, 1881, and died in New York City on September 26, 1945. He composed his ballet score The Wooden Prince between April 1914 and the spring of 1916 and carried out the orchestration in 1916-17, completing it in January of the latter year. The ballet was premiered May 12, 1917, at the Budapest Opera, with Egisto Tango conducting. Bartók undertook a revision of his score in 1932, at which point he introduced numerous cuts as well as new transitions to points of continuation. The San Francisco Symphony played the complete score of The Wooden Prince in February 2005 with David Zinman conducting; these are the first SFS performances of the Suite. The score calls for a large orchestra of four flutes (third and fourth doubling piccolos), four oboes (third and fourth doubling English horns), alto and tenor saxophones (the latter doubling baritone saxophone), four clarinets (third doubling E-flat clarinet, fourth doubling bass clarinet), four bassoons (third and fourth doubling contrabassoons), four horns, four trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, xylophone, triangle, castanets, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, tam-tam, celesta, two harps, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-five minutes.

Among Bartók’s considerable output, we find only three works for the stage, each pertaining to a distinct genre and all three composed in chronological proximity during the 1910s: the opera Bluebeard’s Castle, the ballet The Wooden Prince, and the pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin. Something elemental binds these works together. They document the composer’s exploration of an underlying theme, how human interactions play out in the darkest recesses of intimacy.

Bartók was at heart a humanist but he was not an optimist, and Bluebeard’s Castle and The Miraculous Mandarin are somber to the point of anguish. The Wooden Prince offers a contrasting moment of hopefulness in this landscape of emotional desolation. Bartók’s colleague Zoltán Kodály recognized this when he observed that “the constructive energy of the music [of Bluebeard’s Castle] becomes even more evident if we hear The Wooden Prince immediately afterwards. The playful mobile Allegro of the ballet serves to balance the desolate Adagio of the opera. The two works fit together like two movements of a huge symphony.”

The hopefulness of The Wooden Prince was hard won. Bartók was thirty when he completed Bluebeard’s Castle. As a composer, his reputation was advancing only haltingly, but he had great hope that his opera might be a breakthrough. The libretto was prepared by Béla Balázs, a Symbolist poet, novelist, and dramatist who shared Bartók’s aspiration to create a stage work that was at once thoroughly modern and thoroughly Hungarian. Hopes for the piece came to naught when Bartók submitted it to a national competition for one-act operas, only to have it deemed unplayable by the jury, a judgment echoed by the decision-makers at the Budapest Opera.

Bluebeard’s Castle therefore went unproduced, and Bartók, who was disposed towards bitterness, essentially withdrew from the world of composition and performance, instead retreating into the wilds to make ethnomusicological recordings. During the years of World War I he again began to compose. The most imposing of his creations to emerge from this period was The Wooden Prince.

Despite its resistance to Bluebeard’s Castle, the Budapest Opera had approached Bartók in March 1913 to suggest that he consider writing a ballet. Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes had visited Budapest in 1912, and that company’s performances of avant-garde works, including Stravinsky’s Firebird, had been received with great enthusiasm—an enthusiasm that Bartók had not shared, since he was in the back-country collecting folk songs. Not until a year later did Bartók commence work on The Wooden Prince, which he began in April 1914 and then set aside for another two years, finally completing the orchestration in January 1917.

Bartók’s collaborator was again Béla Balázs, librettist of Bluebeard’s Castle. The Budapest Opera’s regular conductor proved unequal to the task, and the podium was fortunately ceded to Egisto Tango, an Italian conductor noted for his precision and clarity. After thirty rehearsals, opening night approached. Balázs believed the critics were waiting for blood, but the premiere was a triumph.

The Wooden Prince is a contorted fairy tale. It takes place in a Never-Never Land of forests and castles that will be familiar from such slightly earlier Symbolist masterworks as Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande and its operatic setting by Debussy. Here, a Prince, wandering in a forest, spies a Princess, who has just been confined to her castle by the Fairy of Nature. Unable to penetrate a forest and cross a brook to reach her, the Prince carves a puppet from his wooden staff and thrusts it high into the air, trying to attract the Princess’s attention. He adorns it with his robe, then his crown; but only when he cuts off his curly hair and affixes it to the puppet does the Princess show interest. She leaves her castle to join the well-coiffed puppet, but she lavishes all the attention on the “wooden prince,” rather than the real one, who stands by in abject frustration. The Fairy, who is monitoring all this, causes the puppet to dance about, to the Princess’s delight. Eventually the Fairy takes pity on the lovelorn Prince and reverses its influence. Now Nature bedecks the Prince with a crown of flowers and the wooden puppet begins to stumble, causing the Princess to weary of it. Suddenly the Prince appeals to her more; but Nature sees to it that she must also sacrifice something to achieve love, just as the Prince sacrificed his curly locks. She gives up her crown as a token of her repentance and the Fairy elevates the couple to the realm of love.

The dream-like substance of Symbolism invites interpretation, and Balázs suggested one possibility: “The wooden puppet which my prince makes in order to make his presence known to the princess, is an act of creation, embodying everything that the artist has to give, until it is perfectly and brilliantly lustrous, but leaving the artist himself empty and bereft. I was thinking here of the deep tragedy that artists frequently experience when an act of creation becomes a rival of the creator, and of the painful glory when a woman prefers the poem to the poet, the picture to the painter.”

Bartók described the structure of his score this way: “The music of the pantomime is a kind of elaborate symphonic music, a symphonic poem to be danced to. There are three clearly distinguishable parts, within which are smaller sections, too. The first part lasts till the end of the duet between the wooden puppet and the princess. The second one is far more tranquil, of typical middle-movement character, and it continues to the reappearance of the wooden puppet. The third part is actually the repetition of the first part but in inverse order of subdivisions, a natural requirement because of the libretto.” This palindromic sort of balance will come as no surprise to Bartók aficionados, as it prefigures the mirror-image “arch forms” that would soon become his ideal.

The Prelude begins deep in the orchestra with hazy articulations of a single sustained chord—clearly music by someone acquainted with Wagner’s Das Rheingold, which opens in strikingly similar fashion. The clarinet intones a sinuous dance of The Princess in the Forest. The Prince has spotted her, but the Fairy shuts the Princess away in the castle. The trees of The Forest break into a dance, impeding the Prince’s progress as their rumblings, and the waves of the brook, intensify into sweeping nightmare-music. “He has an idea,” reads the score, at a sharply punctuated phrase, and he sets about carving his staff into a puppet to strains with a magical overlay of woodwind flourishes, commencing The Prince’s Work Song. He has another idea (marked by a similar motif) and dresses the puppet in his robe, then another (same motif, now halting) and places his crown on the puppet (with considerable grandeur), and finally decides to trim his curly locks (with plucked strings helping depict the shears). From across The Brook the Princess at last takes notice. The puppet comes clumsily alive and the Princess joins it in a vigorous, increasingly grotesque dance rich in folkloric scale pattern, the Dance of the Wooden Prince. This brings us to the end of what Bartók described as the first section of his “symphonic poem for dance.”

In the second part, we see the Prince’s great unhappiness at being upstaged by his own puppet. The Fairy takes pity on him; the “magical” sounds of harps and celesta create an aural halo as nature bedecks the Prince with a crown of flowers. At this point the puppet is running out of steam, and various instruments—bassoon, clarinet, xylophone—depict its increasing clumsiness—a quicker section that marks the beginning of Bartók’s third part. The remaining action unfolds in rapid succession: the Princess’s alarm when she discards the puppet, only to find the Prince resisting her advances; her sacrifice to earn his love; and, in the end, their embrace in a passionate kiss, with the final measures of the Postlude reflecting the simplicity with which the ballet opened.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Stanisław Skrowaczewski conducting the Minnesota Orchestra (Vox Box)  | For the complete ballet score: Pierre Boulez conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra  (Deutsche Grammophon, out of print but available as a reissue from  |  Antal Dorati conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Mercury Living Presence, out of print but available as a reissue from 

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)