Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Opus 19 (1926) 20 minutes
2 piccolos, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbals, snare drum, triangle, tam-tam, xylophone, harp, celeste, piano, organ, and strings.
Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin is based upon the shocking story of the same name by Hungarian author Menyhért Lengyel, first published in the journal Nyugat on January 1, 1917. The first production of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin took place in 1926, in Cologne, and closed after a single performance. In 1931, the Budapest Opera—in honor of Bartók’s 50th birthday—planned a special production of The Miraculous Mandarin. However, the management of the Opera wanted to modify the story in order to make it “presentable” to the public. Bartók refused, and the ballet was withdrawn. The first production of The Miraculous Mandarin in Bartók’s native Hungary did not occur until 1946, the year after the composer’s death.
To this day, many are taken aback by The Miraculous Mandarin’s graphic depiction of robbery, seduction, sexual longing, and murder. However, both Bartók and Lengyel found beauty and humanity in the story. As Lengyel wrote: “The true message of The Miraculous Mandarin, of course, is not the excessive eroticism but the apotheosis of pure, almost unearthly desire and love.” Bartók must have realized that the plot of The Miraculous Mandarin would make acceptance of the work difficult, if not impossible. Still, Lengyel’s tale moved Bartók to achieve one of his greatest orchestral creations, a brilliant score as “miraculous” as the ballet’s enigmatic title character.
This concert features Bartók’s 1928 concert Suite, fashioned from the original ballet score. The Suite essentially comprises the first two-thirds of the complete ballet with a concert ending.
The story of The Miraculous Mandarin takes place in a crowded metropolis. The curtain rises on a room in a city tenement. Three penniless thugs force a young woman to stand by the window to lure men up to the apartment. Finally, she attracts a mysterious figure, a Mandarin. The woman begins to dance for him. The Mandarin views the woman—impassively at first, but soon with increased longing. When the Mandarin tries to embrace her, she frees herself. A violent chase ensues and when the Mandarin finally catches the girl, they fight (it is at this point that the concert Suite ends). The thugs make several attempts to kill the Mandarin. However, it is not until they allow the Mandarin to embrace the woman that he finally expires.
© Ken Meltzer, 2020