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

The Dead City: Korngold’s Psychological Thriller

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1920 three-act opera, Die tote Stadt (“The Dead City) opens in the rational world, but quickly dissolves into a dark dreamscape of hallucination.

Paul, the central character, is haunted by the recent death of his wife, Marie. Unable to move on, Paul is obsessed with a “Temple of Memories,” which includes paintings, photographs and a lock of his deceased wife’s hair. On the streets of Bruges he sees Marietta, a young dancer who resembles Marie. Paul believes that Marietta is Marie and invites her to his house. Marietta seduces Paul, singing Glück das mir verblieb. Mirroring Paul’s sense of loss, the aria’s words are tinged with sadness and loss…a sense of the fleeting nature of life and love. Bored and put off by Paul’s strange behavior, Marietta leaves.

Events of the second and third acts take place in Paul’s imagination. At the end of Act III, Paul dreams that he strangles Marietta with a lock of Marie’s hair, declaring, “Now she is exactly like Marie.” Suddenly, Paul awakens from his dream. Brigitta, the maid tells him that Marietta has returned to retrieve an umbrella she left behind. Shaken by the ghostly visions, Paul says that he will try to let go of the “Temple of Memories”, singing a reprise of “Glück, das mir verblieb.” Read the entire synopsis here.

Korngold was 23 years old when Die tote Stadt premiered simultaneously in Hamburg and Cologne (conducted by Otto Klemperer) on December 4, 1920. The opera remained popular with audiences until it was banned by the Nazis as part of the Third Reich’s efforts to purge music by Jewish composers. In the post war years it was neglected, fitting neither into the witty neoclassical style of Stravinsky nor the twelve tone world of Arnold Schoenberg. It remained almost forgotten until the mid-to-late twentieth century. In recent years it has seen a revival. Die tote Stadt may be heard as a continuation of the late Romantic harmonic language of Mahler and Richard Strauss.

Below is the powerful final scene, performed by Torsten Kerl. Throughout the opera, Korngold draws on key relationships, representing the living Marietta with five sharps and the dead Marie with five flats. Beginning around the 2:12 mark, we hear the descending chromatic “death” motive which occurs throughout the work. Notice the significant and jarring moments where Korngold chooses to lapse into spoken words. Listen to the way the music changes as the maid, Brigitta enters (5:12) and Paul awakens from his hallucination, singing, “Brigitta, you my old and faithful friend.” On the word “friend,” we’re suddenly transported to a new world as the harmony and tonal color shift.

Korngold’s Die tote Stadt confronts us with questions about holding on versus letting go, and the nature of memory. Are memories real or illusory? Despite this production’s bold “No Exit” sign, the final chord suggests a release of energy akin to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde…an ultimate, irreversible musical resolution which represents the end of tonal striving. It’s a final chord which simultaneously encompasses darkness and light: the widest possible range of the orchestra, from the depths of the woodwind section to the high, shimmering strings.

Europe’s Age-Old Bells

The Christmas season presents an excellent opportunity to sample the awe-inspiring sounds of church bells throughout Europe. This age-old tradition dates back as far as 400 AD. Each cathedral and city seems to have its own unique bell sound. Learn about the history of bell ringing here and for further listening, go to this episode of Karl Haas’s Adventures in Good Music.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Cologne[/typography]

Let’s start with eight of the eleven mighty bells of Cologne Cathedral in Germany. Four of the bells were cast and installed in the 1400s. The 24 ton St. Petersglocke is the largest free swinging bell in the world. Listen to the deep, rich sound which is slowly built up as new bells begin to ring. Around 1:56 you can hear what I’m guessing is the enormous St. Petersglocke:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Fulda[/typography]

Now we’ll go to the German city of Fulda. This clip begins with a single bell ringing and ends with the sound of all ten bells of the Fulda Cathedral:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Antwerp[/typography]

Here are the bells of the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium. This Gothic cathedral was consecrated in 1521:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Prague[/typography]

…and here are the deep tones of the bells of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. Listen to the amazing sound of the larger, lower bells which gradually begin to ring:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Florence[/typography]

Now, let’s go to Italy to hear the seven bells of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome, which dominates the city skyline, was completed in 1461. Exceeding the dome of the Pantheon in Rome, it was a great engineering feat as well as a powerful architectural statement:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]England’s Unique Sound[/typography]

Come back tomorrow and hear a completely different style of bell ringing from England, known as change ringing.