Rated R: Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin

It’s one of the scariest pieces ever written. Both shockingly violent and erotic, Béla Bartók’s “pantomime grotesque” ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, was met with “catcalls, stamping, whistling and booing” at its premiere in Cologne, Germany in November, 1926. The ensuing scandal, which whipped up the fury of Cologne’s clergy and press, among others, caused the mayor, Konrad Adenauer (later the first chancellor of post-war West Germany) to ban the work on moral grounds.

Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

The ballet’s plot, based on a story by Hungarian writer Melchior Lengyel, involves three thugs who exploit the seductive powers of a beautiful young woman to lure men into their den, where the victims are robbed. The thugs force the girl to stand in the window and dance provocatively. In Bartók’s score this seductive dance, musically depicted by the solo clarinet, occurs three times. The first two men who are lured into the trap are thrown out of the room when the thugs realize they have no money. Then, the exotic Mandarin enters. As the Mandarin is entertained by the girl’s dancing, the thugs rob him. In an attempt to kill the Mandarin, they smother him with a pillow and stab him, but to their horror he remains alive, unaffected by the wounds. Finally, the thugs release the Mandarin. He embraces the girl and, his longing fulfilled, he dies.

Bartók began work on the score in the summer of 1918. He offered this description in a letter to his wife:

It will be hellish music. The prelude before the curtain goes up will be very short and sound like pandemonium… the audience will be introduced to the [thieves’] den at the height of the hurly-burly of the metropolis.

This opening cacophony is unleashed with wild scales in the violins, outlining the striking interval of an augmented octave. This is music that sounds like the twentieth century, in all of its mechanized, mass-produced, dehumanizing glory, and that’s one reason it’s so frightening. We hear something similar in the relentless fugue at the end of the piece (beginning around 16:10), which growls like a nightmarish factory conveyer belt. Listen to the way the clarinet enters in a low, ugly register and then shrieks with increasing intensity (16:46) in this passage.

The musicologist József Ujfalussy offers this analysis in his biography of Bartók:

European art began to be populated by inhuman horrors and apocalyptic monsters. These were the creations of a world in which man’s imagination had been affected by political crises, wars, and the threat to life in all its forms… This exposure of latent horror and hidden danger and crime, together with an attempt to portray these evils in all their magnitude, was an expression of protest by 20th-century artists against the… obsolete ideals and inhumanity of contemporary civilization. [Bartók] does not see the Mandarin as a grotesque monster but rather as the personification of a primitive, barbaric force, and example of the ‘natural man’ to whom he was so strongly attracted.

There’s a hint of the exotic sounds of Eastern European folk music scattered throughout the score (Listen to the cellos at 1:30). In the years before writing The Miraculous Mandarin, Bartók traveled throughout the backroads of Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria, recording and notating the distinctive and ancient sounds heard in folk villages.

At moments, Bartók’s score evokes the quiet, unrelenting terror and sense of anticipation that you might feel as you watch a horror movie. Listen for moments of irony and dark humor (the comic dance at 5:14 and, later, the use of the usually elegant waltz). Close your eyes and listen closely and you may have the sense that the instruments are coming alive, each suggesting its distinct persona.

Here is Sir Georg Solti’s recording of The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, Op. 19 with the Chicago Symphony:

Additional Listening

Five Musical Sunrises

images-35Natural cycles, from the change of seasons to the predictable routine of day turning to night, shape our sense of time. Can you imagine how our perception of time, and subsequently music, would be different without these events?

Nature’s visual grandeur has also been an inspiration to composers, especially the eternal drama of the sunrise. Here are five musical depictions:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Haydn’s “Sunrise” String Quartet[/typography]

Haydn’s String Quartet in B flat major, Op.76, No.4 was not originally intended to evoke a sunrise. For Haydn this quartet, written in 1797 in the final years of his life, was pure music. The ascending opening passage later earned it the nickname, “Sunrise”. This expansive musical line has been called “one of the greatest openings in chamber music.” Listen to the way Haydn draws us into the piece and heightens our expectation. The second theme (1:09) reverses the opening motive with a descending line in the cello. In the development section, beginning at 4:24, notice how Haydn transforms the opening motive, suddenly shifting into minor. Can you hear when Haydn returns “home” at the recapitulation?

The last movement’s “Allegro ma non troppo” marking implies a tempo which isn’t too fast. But Haydn, the master of musical humor and surprise, does something interesting and unexpected with the tempo at the end.

This performance is by the Takács Quartet:

  1. Allegro con spirito (0:00)
  2. Adagio (8:15)
  3. Menuetto. Allegro (14:17)
  4. Finale. Allegro ma non troppo (18:29)

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Prelude to Khovanshchina[/typography]

Modest Mussorgsky’s opera, Khovanshchina, tells the story of a violent and bloody episode in Russian history-the unsuccessful rebellion led by Prince Ivan Khovansky against Peter the Great and the subsequent mass suicide of Khovansky’s followers. Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was part of “The Russian Five,” a group of nationalistic Russian composers who aimed to promote their country’s unique musical identity.

The Prelude to Khovanshchina depicts dawn on the Moscow River. The music was orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Pay attention to the mix of orchestral colors and to the way the piece unfolds. How do these elements suggest a sunrise over calm, glistening water? Listen for the sound of church bells. Also, notice the quick ornamental notes in the melody (1:06), which give the music its distinctly Russian flavor.

Here is a 1997 recording of the Chicago Symphony with Sir Georg Solti:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Nielsen’s Helios Overture[/typography]

Helios was the living sun in Greek mythology. In his Helios Overture, Op. 17, Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) depicts sunrise as a gradual, unfolding process. The moment when night gives way to the first light of dawn is marked by a sliver of light on the edge of the eastern horizon. At the end of the day, the sun sinks back into the western horizon.

In the score Nielsen wrote:

[quote]Silence and darkness, The sun rises with a joyous song of praise, It wanders its golden way and sinks quietly into the sea.[/quote]

This is the Danish Radio Symphony conducted by Herbert Blomstedt:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Morning Mood from Peer Gynt[/typography]

Now let’s hear the famous first movement of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s (1843-1907) Peer Gynt Suite, which also depicts a sunrise. This performance is by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. The flute solo is played by James Galaway, who was principal flute in Berlin at the time of the recording. Listen to the dialogue between instruments. Each voice from the woodwinds to the horns has a distinct persona.

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As a professional orchestral musician, I consider myself lucky to be able to sit in the middle of the orchestra every day, surrounded by a rich collective sound. When I play this piece, I always listen for the magical moment at the end of this movement when the horn chords resolve into the final statement of the flute (3:20). The warm low strings and the shimmering flute create a unique musical mood.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Grand Canyon Suite[/typography]

Finally, let’s listen to a distinctly American musical depiction of a sunrise. The scene is Arizona’s awe-inspiring Grand Canyon. This is the first movement of Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite. Here is some background on the piece, completed in 1931. This is a recording featuring the Detroit Symphony, led by conductor Antal Doráti:

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