Wednesday, January 8, 2014

January's Miraculous Music: Bartok's Mandarin Comes to Town

The first time I heard The Miraculous Mandarin by Bela Bartók was live at a concert and the opening hit me so hard, I practically leaped out of my seat, it was so exciting!

The fact it was the Cleveland Orchestra on the road with George Szell didn't hurt and the fact we were in Davis Gym at Bucknell University and I was sitting in the bleachers at the back of the 1st Violin section (incredible view, btw) was amazing.

This was back when I was a college sophomore at nearby Susquehanna University, fifty years after the music had been composed. I didn't know the piece – in fact I only knew a couple pieces by Bartók like the Concerto for Orchestra – and didn't really know what to expect. It is still one of those “incredible memories” I recall, almost 45 years later, with a sense of excitement and wonder. Miraculous, indeed!

Whether you know it or not, you'll get a chance to hear it live this weekend when Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony – Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3 at the Forum. Markus Groh will be playing Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto (you can read about it, here) and the concert opens with a delightful work by Michael Torke called “Javelin,” written for the 1996 Summer Olympics (and you can read about it, here).

I'll be doing the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance, so drop in early – at least the weather will be warmer (a high of 50° – really?) and besides, parking is easier to find, then!

When I posted this on Facebook, a short excerpt, just the last two minutes of music, I thought this was pretty exciting.

Mariss Jansons is rehearsing the Oslo Philharmonic, here, and I'm convinced his last words are “Ja – yowzá, thank you very much.”

Looking around for live concert videos of the Suite on You-Tube, always a challenge at best, I found several “good” performances (sometimes w/bad recordings) but nothing that “pulled me out of my seat.”

Then I found this. I thought, “yeah, Claudio Abbado should be good.” Good? Yowzá!! And this is a YOUTH orchestra! (Eat your heart out, Gustavo Dudamel.) It was recorded in 1980 with the European Community Youth Orchestra and there are serious issues with the video and, alas, some sound problems on occasion, but, really, this is one of the most exciting (if over-the-top) performances I've heard since that memorable concert in 1969 or early 1970 with Szell and Cleveland.

Bartok composing in 1918
But first, let me give you the story behind this music and then you can follow the scenario while listening to the video clip.

In 1919, someone interviewed Bela Bartók and he said this about the piece he was still composing:

= = = = =
So, in the meantime, I am writing music for a play by Menyhért Lengyel, its title is: The Miraculous Mandarin. And just listen to how miraculously beautiful its story is. In a ruffians’ den three rogues force a beautiful young girl to entice men up to her place, so that they then rob them.— The first one is a poor lad, the second one is no better, but the third one is a rich Chinaman. It is a good catch, the girl entertains him with dancing and the mandarin’s desire is awakened, passionate love blazes within him, but the girl is repulsed by him.— The ruffians attack him, rob him, suffocate him with [blankets], run him through with a sword, but all in vain, they are no match for the mandarin, who looks at the girl with loving and longing eyes.— Female intuition helps, the girl fulfills the mandarin’s desire at which point he falls lifeless to the floor.
Bela Bartók, interviewed in 1919
= = = = =

Though we'd call it a ballet, he referred to it as a “dance pantomime.” Shortly after finishing it and realizing it would be a while till he could get the work staged, he adapted part of it for a concert work, the suite you most often hear.

Now, the story is quite sordid – “crime, sex and murder,” after all, but then the same could be said of a lot of opera as far as back as the 1600s and certainly a good deal of what passes for entertainment today in movies and on television.

It's just this level of crime, sex and murder seemed a little excessive to the popular taste in the 1920s.

When it was first staged in Cologne, Germany, it was met with fierce outrage in the audience (both pro and con) but the mayor of the city stepped in and closed the theater, banning all future performances of the work. (The mayor, Konrad Adenauer, went on to become Chancellor of West Germany in 1949 at the age of 63.)

Bartók explained the opening of the piece in a letter to his wife, shortly after he began composing it:

= = = = =
But I’m already thinking about the mandarin, as well; if it works out it will be a devilish piece. Its beginning—a very short introduction before the curtain opens—a terrible din, clattering, rattling, hooting: I lead the Hon[orable] listener into the apache den from the bustle of a metropolitan street.
Bela Bartók, Sept. 15th, 1918
= = = = =

Keep in mind, World War I would not officially end for another two months. He's using the term “apache” here in the sense of those bohemian thugs famous in Paris since the early 1900s, the equivalent of modern street gangs. They are cold and hungry (just as Bartók often was at this time, still an unknown quantity as a composer, when he was writing this).

And so the story begins: here is Claudio Abbado and the European Community Youth Orchestra.

= = = = =

= = = = =

0:00 – on the streets of the Big City, the hustle and bustle of night life
1:09 – we enter the 2nd floor room where three thugs are holding a young girl
2:07 – they force her to stand at the window and entice a man into the room so they can rob him
2:57 – her first “siren call” (clarinet solo)
4:28 – the first person to respond starts walking up the steps: the thugs hide themselves to wait for the right moment to attack him
5:08 – the first victim turns out to be a well-dressed but care-worn old man who's a bit pompous and clearly down on his luck but still tries to impress the girl, but she is repulsed by him – then he admits he has no money
6:29 – the thugs rush out at him, tossing him (and his battered top hat) down the steps
6:42 – her second “siren call” (clarinet solo)
7:53 – the second victim enters hesitantly, a young student, shy and embarrassed
8:26 – she likes him better, tries to get him to dance with her, but he's shy and also, he has no money
9:24 – the thugs rush him and push him down the stairs as well
9:37 – her third “siren call” (begins with clarinet solo)
10:36 – the thugs anticipate the arrival of the new victim who comes up the steps accompanied by strange oriental music
11:06 – the Mandarin appears in the doorway, frightening and awesome (if not yet miraculous)
12:00 – but he just stands there, staring at the girl who is afraid of him
13:08 – she tries to get him to respond but he just stands there, watching her
14:15 – she begins a slow, seductive dance, awkwardly at first; again, no response from the strange mandarin
16:34 – he gradually begins to show interest in her
17:02 – she resumes her dance
17:36 – suddenly he begins to pursue her around the room, chasing her; she is terrified
sketches for the Miraculous Mandarin (p. 2 = 17:36 of video)

Now, at this point, Bartók ends the suite but the ballet continues for another ten minutes or so. The thugs, realizing he may harm the girl, rush out to attack the Mandarin but they cannot control him. First they smother him on the bed, but he comes back to consciousness and continues to pursue the girl. This time, the thugs stab him and he falls but doesn't bleed. Just as they think he's dead, he comes to life again and continues his pursuit. Ultimately, the thugs catch him and tie him up, hanging him from the overhead light fixture. Again, he appears to die. But he isn't dead yet – in fact, when they cut him down, they realize he is still alive. This time, the girl takes pity on him and caresses him. Only then do his wounds begin to bleed and he dies.

Now, with a story like that, you can imagine why this would create a scandal – it wasn't just the music alone. In fact, a later production, trying to get around the censors, eliminated the suggestive bed and another reset it outside in the countryside, none of which softened the music's impact, you would think.

After that initial stage production in Cologne – the one that closed after one night in 1926, seven years after the music was completed – Bartók wrote this to his mother:

= = = = = Cologne after Mandarin there was a noisy demonstration against the text and a counter-demonstration in my support. The riot lasted a good ten minutes and they lowered the safety curtain, too, but the people still didn’t leave, so the fire-door was twice opened, too. Well, I can tell you that there was frantic applause (and frantic hissing)! You really should have been there, at such a big disturbance! ...The [Buda]Pest newspapers report that the piece was officially banned; this is very likely, and my people in Cologne were on the one hand also afraid of this, and on the other, Szenkár says there’s no finer publicity than a ban like this. Well, we shall see.
Bartók to his mother, December 2, 1926
= = = = =

Keep in mind, the story and the music it inspired were written during the final, devastating years of World War I. The economy had collapsed and after the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, Hungary found itself a finally independent country (rather than a politically but not culturally autonomous part of the Austrian Empire) in a political and economic vacuum. (Think Iraq after the war officially ended there, recently.)

But it had lost a large part of its ethnic territory, large minorities of Hungarians now living in what had been ceded to Romania, to what eventually became Yugoslavia, to Austria and to the new Republic of Czechoslovakia. There was considerable concern about Hungarians' national and ethnic identity as a result of these sudden and difficult changes. Then, between the end of the war and the time Bartók finished this score, there were three political revolutions in Budapest in less than two years!

So if you think the story and the music are violent, the turmoil of those times might explain a little of that.

My pre-concert talk before each performance went into more of this historical background to the works on the program: you can read the text of it, posted on my blog Thoughts on a Train, here.

– Dick Strawser

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