Bartók: Suite From The Miraculous Mandarin, Pantomime in One Act, Opus 19 

Suite From The Miraculous Mandarin, Pantomime in One Act, Opus 19

Béla Viktor János Bartók

BORN: March 25, 1881. Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (which later became Sannicolau Mare, Rumania)

DIED: September 26, 1945. New York City

COMPOSED:  1918-19

WORLD PREMIERE:   November 27, 1926. Cologne, Germany

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST— March 1971. Seiji Ozawa conducted. MOST RECENT—June 2008. James Gaffigan conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (2 of them doubling piccolos), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (of which 1 doubles E-flat clarinet and 1 bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, celesta, organ, and strings.

DURATION: About 22 mins

THE BACKSTORY Anyone who thinks the modern theater has reached an unrivaled level of depravity need only look back a century to find stage scenarios as shocking as anything likely to hit the boards today. The Miraculous Mandarin, completed in 1919, is a lurid tale of prostitution, fraud, theft, and murder.

Look at the ballet's scenario. It was the work of Menyhért Lengyel (1880-1974; he went by Melchior Lengyel in non-Magyar lands), a Hungarian playwright and film scriptwriter of the Naturalist school. Naturalists wore as a point of pride their unwillingness to shirk from full description, however crude, of details involving sex, lust, psychosis, violence, or extreme horror. Bartók described the work's plot: "Three [thugs] force a beautiful girl to lure men into their den so they can rob them. . . . The third [visitor] is a wealthy Chinese. He is a good catch, and the girl entertains him by dancing. The Mandarin's desire is aroused, he is inflamed by passion, but the girl shrinks from him in horror. The [thugs] attack him, rob him, smother him in a quilt, and stab him with a sword, but their violence is of no avail. They cannot kill the Mandarin, who continues to look at the girl with love and longing in his eyes. Finally feminine instinct helps: the girl satisfies the Mandarin's desire, and only then does he collapse and die."

Bartók was already well known as a composer of adventurous works when he wrote The Miraculous Mandarin in the winter of 1918-19, thanks especially to the reception in Budapest of the only other stage works he would ever write, the opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle (of 1911, also something of a shocker) and his ballet The Wooden Prince (1917). After the previously unimagined horrors of World War I, the ability to shock was gold in the currency of modern art, at least in Freud-dominated Central Europe; the French, as an example in contrast, tended instead to shrug their shoulders and accept that the world had gone irreparably mad, Surrealist, Dada. Lengyel suffered from tremendous insecurities despite the success of his plays during the first decade of the twentieth century (and practically annual triumphs in the decade that followed). He recognized that his fears of failure and non-acceptance threatened his ability to work, and he signed on as the first patient of Sándor Ferenczi, Freud's most prominent Hungarian pupil. "Since my condition sometimes was downright unbearable," he wrote to a friend in 1908, "and I was afraid of a catastrophe happening at any moment, I went to Vienna to see Professor Freud. He diagnosed the symptoms of hysteria and psycho-neurosis, which require lengthy treatment with his psychoanalytical methods." If the Expressionist plot of The Miraculous Mandarin seems a bit like an obsessive nightmare, there's good reason.

Lengyel's story was first published in the January 1, 1917, edition of the magazine Nyugat. There is evidence that he possibly intended it as a scenario for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, or as the basis for a libretto for an opera he hoped Ernö Dohnányi would write. Neither of those possibilities came to pass, leaving the plot open to Bartók, who was a dedicated Nyugat subscriber. On June 21, 1918, Bartók met with Lengyel to sign an agreement about The Miraculous Mandarin, which provided the composer with exclusive rights to a musical setting of the story and with two-thirds of the profits that might arise from royalties from staged performances and publication of the score that included text. Bartók worked quickly and steadily. A year later, on July 5, 1919, Lengyel could write in his diary, "The other day Béla Bartók played for us on the piano the music of The Miraculous Mandarin. . . . Wonderful music! Incomparable talent!"

Bartók's score for The Miraculous Mandarin had to bide time before it would be heard. Though completed in early 1919, the ballet was not produced for more than seven years—and even then not in the creators' native Hungary. The Cologne premiere provoked an audience uproar. Church officials were so offended by its content that the production was suspended after a single performance. The piece never gained a toehold, and in the twenty years following its scandalous premiere it enjoyed only one production—in 1927, in Prague. Conservative Hungary remained Mandarin-resistant throughout the composer's lifetime; attempts to mount the ballet in Budapest in 1931 and 1941 both failed. It is customary to blame the state censors for squashing these productions in the rehearsal stage, but, at least of the earlier attempt, Lengyel wrote:

Both Bartók and I were in Budapest, and we participated in the rehearsals. There was a hostile atmosphere in the Opera, however, and the staging did not represent the true spirit of the work. Bartók, who strove for perfection in everything, especially in music, in his growing dissatisfaction finally banned the performance, which was full of mistakes—with my consent. The Opera, instead of correcting the mistakes, took us at our word right away and removed Mandarin from the program once and for all.

THE MUSIC In 1919, before the ballet had ever been produced, Bartók arranged segments of his half-hour score into a concert suite. Since the suite itself runs about twenty-two minutes, it is clear that the lion's share of the ballet score made it into the symphonic version. In creating the suite, Bartók cut two sections from the middle of the ballet, created a fourteen-measure concert ending for the Mandarin's dance in which he pursues the girl, and eliminated the ballet's final music (which required a wordless chorus).

Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin Suite opens with his depiction of the city: "an awful clamor, clatter, stampeding and blowing of horns," he wrote; "I lead the highly respectable listener from the crowded streets of a metropolis to [a ruffian’s] den." Here, the music weighs us down to the depths of hell—vicious music meant to penetrate to the depth of the soul, music that suffocates and overwhelms. It is this harsh, pounding music of the opening that is woven throughout the work, signaling violence. As music subsides, one envisions the curtain rising on the three thugs, who search their empty pockets for money and send the unwilling girl to the window to snare her catch for them to rob. Each of her three enticements begins with rhapsodic figures in the clarinet, "songs of allurement," according to music critic Emil Haraszti, "that set one's nerves on edge with their erotic lyricism and unbelievably provocative tension."

She attracts first an elderly gentleman, whose comical courting is represented by trombone glissandos; but he has no money, so the thugs throw him out. Back at the window (another florid clarinet passage), the girl ensnares a bashful boy, with whom she briefly dances; but he, too, lacks money and is also hustled out.

The clarinet grows wilder as the girl returns for a third time to the window. This time she attracts an exotic Mandarin, whose approach is portrayed by a quasi-Oriental theme in the trombones. The girl dances a waltz that grows increasingly serpentine and seductive; as the Mandarin becomes aroused, he chases her (a frenetic fugal section composed over an insistent ostinato figure played by low-pitched instruments, with pounding timpani). He catches her, and they struggle (fierce, dissonant major-minor chords).

The opening music returns as the three thugs attack the Mandarin, pounding him, stealing his money and jewels, and trying to smother him under some bedclothes. But his head pops out from beneath the blankets, and the cellos' uneasy quarter-tones depict his woozy, lustful staring at the girl. The thugs then run him through with a rusty old sword; falling oboe and clarinet scales imply that this is his end, but a rising scale suggests otherwise. The thugs now hang him from a chandelier, but he refuses to die. Cut down, he resumes his chase of the girl (with the perverse waltz tune). She no longer resists. An outburst of the horns and trombones marks a climactic moment, and only then does the Miraculous Mandarin yield to his inevitable death, marked by a growling glissando from the double basses.—James M. Keller

If the Expressionist plot of The Miraculous Mandarin seems a bit like an obsessive nightmare, there's good reason. The Cologne premiere of the ballet provoked an audience uproar. Church officials were so offended by its content that the production was suspended after a single performance.