Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19, Sz. 73 (BB 82)

Béla Bartók (1881–1945) was one of the giants of the twentieth century. His major works incorporate Hungarian folk music, classical discipline, complex rhythm, and sharp, often biting, harmony. He was encouraged to embark on an extensive project to collect folk music from Hungary and surrounding areas in collaboration by his Hungarian compatriot Zoltán Kodály. The idea was to explore how folk music might help to define what made music specifically Hungarian. Kodály also introduced him to the music of Debussy, whose influence is most evident in Bartók’s Four Pieces and his opera Bluebeard’s Castle. The initial failure of Bluebeard’s Castle turned Bartók to working mostly with folklore until 1915, when he returned to composing. His second string quartet and the ballet The Wooden Prince followed.

The Miraculous Mandarin (Hungarian: A csodálatos mandarin), composed in 1918 and orchestrated by the composer in 1924, is a pantomime for the stage based on a magazine story by the Hungarian dramatist Melchior Lengyel. It is brilliantly scored, exciting, violent, salacious, and spooky. While neither atonal nor serial, the work is full of dissonances, tone clusters, whole tone and pentatonic scales, quarter tones, and other modern devices. Instruments are exploited in a variety of ways, including mutes, glissandos, flutter tonguing, trills, and extended string and percussion effects. Harmonies evocative of Debussy are present, but much more apparent is the rhythmic influence of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The work has been described as a conflict between natural impulses and the corrupting nature of urban life. Another interpretation is that sexual drive is so powerful that it can hold off death until fulfilled.

The setting is a tenement on a busy city street. Waves of strings, chattering winds, and the bass trombone produce urban bustling and car horns. After the chaos dies down, the violas show us three thugs searching unsuccessfully for money. Angry trombones rise in pitch as they order a young woman, Mimi, to lure men into the room so they can rob them. She reluctantly agrees; florid clarinets embody her “decoy game,” where she gestures seductively behind the window. Rhythmic muted trombones portray an old man lumbering up the stairs. Salacious muted trombone glissandos, sexy strings, and creepy wind solos make his desires clear. When the thugs learn he has no money, the orchestra rages, and they throw him (quite graphically) down the stairs. After the next clarinet “decoy game,” the oboe announces a handsome young student at the door. He captures real interest from the girl, and the two begin a slow waltz begun by the bassoon. But he too is penniless, and he receives the same treatment as the old man.

The third “decoy game” brings a wealthy Chinese man, who climbs the stairs to a pentatonic tune in the muted trombones. A huge brass fanfare announces his magnificent appearance. A palpable force emanating from him frightens the tramps. Strange woodwind figures express the thugs’ curiosity, and they order the girl to dance. Tentative woodwinds and quick flips in the flute evince her uncertainty, but she complies to slow eerie music in a long "cat and mouse" scene, as the mandarin stares at her. Her dance grows more animated, ending on a long, high sustained chord joined by woodwinds. The brass shout the mandarin’s theme and hold the last chord softly.

Suddenly, with a whoop of the horns, the mandarin leaps for her. The earlier pentatonic tune breaks out in frenetic muted trombones as he grabs wildly. Drums pound. She flees to a fierce fugue beginning in the strings and increasing in fury. The mandarin catches her, but the thugs decide that he must be killed. In the guise of rising trombone triplets, they rise up, tear the girl away, and smother him with pillows, depicted with heavy timpani and low brass. The music quiets.

A lone bassoon wails curiously, and the mandarin’s head suddenly appears from under the pillows to stare intently at the girl. The bass drum thuds, the music quickens, and the horrified thugs drag him out of the bed and stab him three times with a rusty sword. The mandarin does not bleed; he sways, stumbles toward the girl, and falls on her. The music slows down and thins out as they pick him up to kill him another way. Over spooky low glissandos from the low trombones, basses, and timpani, they hang the mandarin from a chandelier. The body of the mandarin glows bluish-green as the wordless chorus intones, and he continues to stare at the girl. The strings surge up from the violas through the violins, and the girl has a flash of understanding. She convinces the thugs to let him down. After a pause, the mandarin embraces her. She does not resist as the brass roar in jagged lines. The music slows, and the English horn sobs. With his longing fulfilled, the mandarin begins to bleed from his wounds. Amid longing glances and halting groans and shudders, the mandarin dies.

After the 1926 premiere in Cologne and a performance in Prague, the work was banned in most countries because of its grotesque and lurid subject matter. In an effort to appease the censors, Bartók condensed the musical material into a suite, which ends with the first chase; this abridged version is performed extensively today. The Mercury Orchestra performs this work in its entirety, restoring the mandarin’s miraculous multiple evasions of death and the powerful dénouement. This performance also restores 30 measures which were mistakenly deleted in initial publication.

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is also the Operations/Personnel Manager), and is a local freelancer. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener's Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony.

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