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Carl Leafstedt, professor of Music at Trinity University, Texas, and the author of Inside Bluebeard's Castle discusses Bartók's operas.Download as PDF

Bartók on Stage by Carl Leafstedt

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Although he wrote a number of other important works during the 1910s, including the Second String Quartet and the five Ady Songs, it is the three stage works that show most clearly Bartók's breathtakingly rapid development as a musician during this decade. Composers, like all human beings, come in a wide range of types with regard to personal and intellectual development. Some catch fire early, in their teenage years, or, in the case of prodigies like Mozart and Mendelssohn, while still children. Others come to composing later, only acknowledging the primacy of their composing instinct after pursuing other career alternatives.

Bartók falls somewhere in the middle of these two basic types. Although he started writing music very early, it took him an unusually long time to find what scholars like to call his ‘mature voice'. Well into his twenties and early thirties, spending energy equally in the areas of piano performance and, after 1904, in folk song collecting, he was still putting in place the building blocks of his modernist style. In hindsight we can see that the path was a long one for him, and the way uncertain.

Bluebeard's Castle, his first and only opera, was written in 1911-12. The Wooden Prince, a ballet, came almost immediately after. The Miraculous Mandarin was finished in 1919, but had to wait four more years to be orchestrated. After these works he never returned to the world of musical theatre. In Bluebeard and The Wooden Prince one can still detect outside influences at work, particularly the newer orchestral scores of Stravinsky and Debussy. By the time of the Mandarin, however, something had happened. Bartók's style is now wholly original: muscular, lyrical at times in a plangent way, and increasingly comfortable when ranging around the remoter boundaries of tonality. Few whiffs of outside influence remain. Bartók's mature style had developed. He was thirty-eight years old.

While some observers downplay the scores of the early 1910s as ‘transitional', in truth what we hear in them is a remarkably original mind grappling his way past the powerful, and productive, influences of Debussy and Stravinsky to the fully individual style he would soon discover in the Second Quartet and the Mandarin. Alert listeners will hear the occasional distant voices of other composers in The Wooden Prince and Bluebeard, as well as in the still infrequently performed Four Orchestral Pieces, conceived in 1911-12. Yet the result is no less Bartók's own: the influences are filtered and integrated into a wholly personal musical language.

At the time he wrote Bluebeard's Castle Bartók was thirty years old and had been teaching piano at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest for four years. Although respected in Hungary for his pianistic skills, and deeply admired by his students, he had already encountered difficulties trying to expand his performing career beyond the Hungarian borders. He found himself gradually easing into the divided career he would maintain for the next two decades: teaching piano at the Academy during the school year, and collecting folk music across Eastern Europe during holiday periods and summertime. He composed during what time was left. Of Bluebeard's Castle, he wrote simply: "It was simultaneously my first stage and first vocal work." The opera received its première at the Royal Opera House in Budapest on May 24, 1918.

Written to a text by Béla Balázs, a young Hungarian playwright and intellectual who later became a prominent figure in the early film industry, Bluebeard's Castle is a modern version of the old European folk tale about the cruel, blue-bearded prince and his many disappearing wives. In Bartók's hands, this well-known tale becomes a metaphor for the impossibility of complete love between a man and a woman. The opera is still permeated by the legend's historic undertow of violence, as well as the larger theme of human curiosity that cannot be quenched. It is a foregone conclusion in both the original French fairy tale and all other later versions of the story that Bluebeard's newest wife will not be able to rest until she's opened the forbidden chamber.

All is dark on stage as the opera begins. Over the course of the next hour, a spiritually lonely and tormented Bluebeard permits Judith to open, one by one, the seven large doors that loom before them in the darkened confines. The doors open to reveal symbolic aspects of Bluebeard's identity: a torture chamber, a hall of weapons, a treasure chamber, a lake of tears. Traces of blood are seen. Bluebeard pleads with Judith not to open the last door. But she feels compelled to pursue her original goal of opening all the castle's doors. Judith wishes to bring light to his castle. She forces him to hand over the final key, and she opens the seventh door.

To her surprise (and to ours), from behind the door step three living women that Bluebeard identifies as his former wives. Wordlessly, the women come forward one by one to receive his praises. Judith now realizes that her fate, too, is to be entombed within Bluebeard's castle as a living memory. She joins the former wives behind the seventh door as a grief-stricken Bluebeard quietly intones, "Now it will be night forever," and the stage fades back to darkness.

Musically, the one-act opera follows the form of a large arc, mirroring the progress of the drama. The opening musical idea, a slow cantabile melody in the strings first heard in total darkness, returns an hour later to conclude the opera, again in an atmosphere of total darkness. The dramatic highpoint occurs near the middle of the opera when Judith opens the Fifth Door to reveal the splendours of Bluebeard's domains. Thrilling orchestral chords burst forth in C major, supported by a fortissimo organ part that Bartók writes into the score to emphasize the grandeur of this moment. Throughout, Bartók sets the vocal parts of Bluebeard and Judith in a freely declamatory style that permits the natural speech rhythms of the Hungarian language, with its unusual accentual patterns, to sound in a clear, unaffected manner. Scholars agree that an important model here was Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. A vast orchestra, one of Bartók's largest, supports the vocal lines, moving with Mahlerian deftness from moments of chamber-music-like delicacy to massive thunderheads of sound that underline the characters' inner agony.

One of the opera's more unusual features is found in the enigmatic figure of the bard, who steps forward before the curtain rises to introduce the opera. The bard is a speaking role, often taken in performances by the same man who will soon sing Bluebeard. He addresses the audience for two minutes in ballad-like, incantatory phrases. He invites us to think about the metaphorical nature of the drama. "Where is the stage, Ladies and Gentlemen? Inside or out?" The events we are about to witness on stage, he suggests, could have been drawn as well from our own life experience. For audience members willing to see themselves in the opera, its darkened outlines reveal a profound truth about human nature: that to live – to feel alive – requires even the most isolated soul to reach out for the warming power of love.

Posterity has come to view The Wooden Prince as Bartók's answer to Stravinsky's first two ballets, The Firebird and Petrouchka. The outward similarities are indeed striking. The Wooden Prince is a fairy-tale ballet of just under an hour's duration. It uses a highly colouristic orchestra, folk-like dances, and even introduces a dancing wooden dummy reminiscent of the similar character in Petrouchka. (Or, looking even further back in the ballet literature, of the classic wooden figure introduced in Délibes's Coppélia.) Bartók wrote the ballet during 1914-16, and completed the orchestration in 1917. Unique among the works of these years, once composed it moved quickly into production. The entire ballet was heard for the first time on 12 May 1917, at the Budapest Opera House, under the direction of the Italian conductor Egisto Tango. It was published in score and parts by Universal Edition in 1924. A piano transcription appeared in print in 1921. Bartók later fashioned an orchestral suite of highlights from the ballet to help broaden the work's performance options, and it is this suite that we shall be hearing in the Infernal Dance concert series.

Though outwardly sunny in its subject matter, The Wooden Prince has a quietly mystical side that may explain Bartók's attraction to the story. At first glance the ballet appears to be a routine fairy-tale story of a prince and princess falling in love despite obstacles placed in their path. When the curtain goes up, the handsome prince sees the beautiful princess playing alone in the forest. An all-knowing fairy nearby, however, has other plans for him. he wishes him to remain in the forest, in her magical world. She brings the forest to life, then a river, in an unsuccessful attempt to turn his heart away from the princess, who by now sits oblivious in her castle, spinning yarn.

The prince, despairing of getting the princess's attention, fashions a wooden dummy that he can hold above the trees. The dummy comes to life. When the princess spies the dummy, she rushes to it and promptly falls in love with the prince's facsimile. Inevitably – this is a fairy tale – the dummy breaks down. The princess now spies the real prince for the first time and consoles his wounded pride. They fall in love. As the curtain falls, the two lovers stand gazing quietly into each other's eyes.

As the stage directions make clear, however, the central moment in this fairy tale occurs not when the lovers finally unite, but earlier, when the prince, alone on stage with the fairy, feels the weight of his sorrow after the princess appears to have abandoned him for the dummy. After asking all the trees, flowers, and waters to pay homage to the agonized man before them, "the fairy takes the prince's hand," it reads in the score, "and leads him to the hill. Triumph, radiancy and splendour. ‘Here you will be King over everything!'" The prince realizes the folly of pursuing love. All nature embraces him in his splendid solitude. Bartók's music emphasizes this moment of apotheosis, soaring in arcing gestures over a fortissimo chord in C sharp minor. Love, the ballet seems to say, is not all that we all make it out to be. The highest solution for lonely souls is to lay down one's burdens on the forgiving breast of Nature, where no questions are asked and all is forgiven.

At the time of the première Bartók described the ballet as "a kind of elaborate symphonic music, a symphonic poem to be danced to". Conceived as a series of seven separate dances, with connecting music, the ballet pulses with energy in the more vivid dances. The grotesque dance of the princess with the puppet (the fourth of the seven dances) has a robust vigour drawn from the verbunkos dance-music style that Bartók, as a Hungarian, knew well. The other dances offer vivid orchestral images of the action on stage. The coquettish princess is introduced (first dance) by a sly clarinet tripping lightly over a pizzicato waltz accompaniment. The Dance of the Trees (second dance) rumbles to life with low waves of sound that build up to a folk-inflected rhythmic gesture. The majestic heart of the score lies in the glorious music Bartok wrote to accompany the prince's apotheosis. Unlike some of the other, more colouristic dances in the score, which sometimes show the strong influence of Stravinsky, here the passionate music, agonizing and beautiful, retreats from the folkloric style to the intensely chromatic, utterly distinctive soundworld that Bartók forged for himself in the 1910s. As the ballet closes, the forest slowly loses its enchantment and the gentle C major sonorities heard half an hour earlier, when the curtain went up, slowly return. The music fades away. The story has come full circle, returning us again to the splendid peace of Nature.

In 1912, when Bluebeard's Castle did not win either of two opera competitions held for a new Hungarian-language opera, Bartók's habitual despondence about the musical life of Budapest deepened further. With his wife Márta and infant son, Béla, Jr., he moved out to a suburb of Budapest where he could live and work in relative solitude, commuting into the city only to teach his piano lessons at the Academy. All of his biographers point to this period as a time of personal crisis for Bartók. He composed relatively little from 1912 to 1914. He took consolation instead in collecting, and organising, the fresh folk material he recorded in personal visits with peasants from across the region of modern-day Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. Just as he began composing The Wooden Prince the horizon was further darkened by the onset of the First World War. Bartók escaped conscription due to his chronically poor health. But with the Hungarian border sealed, and food in increasingly scarce supply, the deprivations of war affected his family for many years, further amplifying the flashes of bitterness which stand out starkly in his letters from this time.

Small wonder, then, that the few works he wrote during the 1912-16 period have their darker moments. In his next work for stage, written in the aftermath of war, the darkness grows deeper, more twisted, more violent. Perhaps inspired by the Budapest Opera House's supportive interest in The Wooden Prince, Bartók turned again to the world of dance. Melchior Lengyel's scenario, described by the author as a "pantomime grotesque", first appeared in the literary journal Nyugat in January 1917. Set in a shabby tenement in a nameless urban metropolis, Lengyel's pantomime tells the story of three thugs who force an attractive young woman, Mimi, to lure men to their room to be robbed. The third of her prospective victims is a wealthy Chinese man of unearthly appearance and bearing. Bartók himself summarized what happens next: "The catch is good, the girl entertains him with her dance, the Mandarin's desire is aroused, his love flares up, but the girl recoils from him. – The thugs attack the Mandarin, rob him, smother him with pillows, stab him with a sword, all in vain, because the Mandarin continues watching the girl with eyes full of love and yearning. – Relying on her feminine ingenuity, the girl complies with the Mandarin's wish, whereupon he falls dead."

Such explicit focus on human sexuality and violence, culminating in a moment of sexual release on stage, was bound to attract the strong disapproval of audiences, yet Bartók persevered in completing a work that, by all measures, represents one of his finest compositions. He felt the plot to be "marvellously beautiful," according to one comment made in 1919. Its fate in the theatre has been mixed, despite the (by now) universal acclaim given to the music. It was not staged in Hungary until after Bartók's death, in December 1945. Like The Rite of Spring and other modernist dance works dating from the early twentieth century, it survives largely as an orchestral masterwork. Vivid, thrilling, and imaginatively conceived, it is the type of music that inspires orchestral players to peak performance levels.

The opportunity to hear Mandarin played in close company with The Wooden Prince reveals the two work's different dramaturgy quite plainly. There are not as many dance movements in Mandarin and the music is written to correspond to the fluctuating demands and timing of the plot, rather like a film soundtrack. Its two larger-scale dances, not indicated as such in the score, are the waltzing seduction dance performed by the girl before the Mandarin and the chase scene that follows. The latter, which ends the concert version of the work Bartók made in 1926, is a barbaric, primitivist inspiration of the sort he periodically produced throughout his life to great effect. (Other examples include the Allegro Barbaro and the Scherzo of the Second Quartet.) It pulses with the energy of the Mandarin's determination to reach the girl. Jagged, abrupt figures bounce, fugue-like, through the orchestra in a literal evocation of the chase, above a pounding ostinato bass line reminiscent of the more frenzied moments in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

© Carl Leafstedt 2010
Carl Leafstedt is a professor of Music at Trinity University, Texas, and the author of Inside Bluebeard's Castle (OUP, 1999). He is currently working on a book about Bartók in America.

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Bluebeard's Castle At the Crossroads Bartok at the Piano Bartok in NYC Salonen & Bronfman meet Muzsikas Muzsikas Bartok on Stage Bartok's Orbit Folk Inspiration Folk Music Concerto for Orchestra Introduction to Bartok


Infernal Bartok Bartok and Folklore Bartok at the Keyboard Bartok on the Stage

Programme Notes

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