Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, op. 19

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            Every great composer may be said to be unique, but Béla Bartók’s artistic position in the world of twentieth-century music stands apart.  He was a Hungarian pianist and ethno-musicologist who also happened to compose, and as his career evolved he contributed some of the most esteemed and respected works to the standard repertoire.  His was a musical style that was founded upon an intimate knowledge of the great styles and techniques of the past; a seminal appreciation of the possibilities of integrating the materials of Central European folk music into art music; and an uncommon elegance, restraint, and sophistication.  His innovations in textures, colors, and structure laid the foundations for myriad others who followed.

            Reared and educated in Budapest, he early on embarked as a typical conservatory pianist, performing the standard repertory with which we are all so familiar. He performed for much of his life, but his rather dour personality and lack of “soloist” image restricted his success.   What changed his life was his “discovery” of the folk music of his native Hungary.   He and his famous friend and colleague, Zoltán Kodály, starting around 1908, toured extensively in the backcountry of Hungary with an Edison cylinder machine making recordings of thousands of folksongs.  Later they transcribed them and issued scholarly publications, literally becoming pioneers in the field.  Both of them, but especially Bartók, sought to find ways of taking the scales, harmonies, and rhythms of this material and using them as a foundation for new ways of composing art music for a universal audience.  And in this he was spectacularly successful.   The litany of masterpieces that emerged in the ensuing years is an imposing one.  Among them, to just name a few, are the six string quartets, Mikrokosmos (a series of graded piano compositions for youth), three piano concertos, the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and the Concerto for Orchestra.  All of which, together with others, constitute a body of compositions not exceeded in significance and integrity—not to mention popularity—by that of any other composer of the twentieth century.  Quite a legacy.

            In the late teens Bartók became interested in a story published by the esteemed Hungarian author, Melchior Lengyel, a name that means nothing to most American audiences.  Except that, after his removal to Hollywood in 1937, Lengyel was an active screenwriter, and wrote the stories for such classics as Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka (1939) and Carole Lombard’s last movie, To Be or Not to Be  (1942).  This story, however—subtitled a “grotesque pantomime”--was quite different, involving prostitution, violence, robbery, and ultimately, murder.  Working from 1918 to 1924, Bartók composed the music for a pantomime ballet of the story, and it was given its première in Cologne, Germany in 1926.  Well, The Rite of Spring wasn’t the only first performance to cause uproar in the audience.   The lurid story of The Miraculous Mandarin was enough to send many in the audience that night for the doors.  The censors banned the ballet, and it was seldom performed for many years.  The composer, however, did extract a suite from the ballet’s music, and that has taken an important place in the repertoire for symphony orchestra.

            Bartók’s score was conceived to reflect the events of the story rather precisely—and given the nature of the latter, the music is appropriately descriptive.  So, we can expect tense, jarring, even grotesque and violent music.  And to aid in its creation, the composer literally pulls out all the stops in sound possibilities from the instruments of the orchestra.   Glissandos, double stops, trills, tremolos, flutter tonguing, mutes, harmonics, using the wood of the bow, quarter tones, and more.  Harmonically, we hear clusters, chromatics, and a baker’s dozen of ways to create dissonance.   This is not going to be a pleasant picture, and why should it be?   The “melodies” are more in the nature of motifs, and I’ll guarantee you that you won’t leave the hall whistling them.

            The story is rather simple:  three derelicts in a metropolis, impecunious, force a young woman to display herself and dance in their window to entice men upstairs for them to rob.  Successively, an old lecher, a naïve young man, and a Chinese “Mandarin”--the latter term is used loosely, here--are lured upstairs as victims.  The first two have no money, but obviously, the Mandarin does.  However, he is not easily deterred, and pursues the girl with passionate ardor.  The music of Bartók’s suite ends here, but in the full ballet, the Mandarin is stabbed, hung on a hook, then comes to life in an unearthly “plutonium” green glow in the dark.  Terrified, they release him; he has his way with the girl, and thereafter dies of his wounds.  It’s not pretty.

            The music opens with cascades of scales representing tumult of the cityscape, replete with car horns in the brass.   The viola tune first heard represents the three tramps and the girl.  The three “enticement” dances are in the solo clarinets—each one of the three growing more and more elaborate with each repetition.  The old lecher is depicted by low brass glissandos, and the young man by a soft, slow theme.  Finally, the Mandarin’s appearance is accompanied by a vigorous and aggressive trombone and tuba theme.  The girl dances a kind of waltz to seduce him, and a fantastic, blazing fugue depicts his pursuit of her, taking this sordid little tale to a smashing, frightening conclusion.  This wild tale is not untypical of Central-European expressionism in the period subsequent to WWI, and Bartók had just the right music for this depravity.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2015 William E. Runyan