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Although Bartók survived the ‘flu, and his hearing soon returned to normal, Hungary was in terminal turmoil. The day after Bartók crawled off his sickbed, the Hungarian premier was assassinated. Four days later the Austro-Hungarians achieved armistice, a fortnight later centuries of Habsburg monarchy were at an end, and within four months the first Hungarian Soviet Republic had been declared. The unassuming Bartók found himself, in rapid succession, a Liberal appointee to the Hungarian National Council and then a member of the Communists’ music directorate.
It is indeed strange that during these months of death, mayhem and revolution Bartók wrote the bulk of the composition that he loved more than any: his pantomime, The Miraculous Mandarin. Strange, too, that the fates would conspire to ensure that he never saw his work on the Budapest stage during his lifetime. Its stage première there would occur in December 1945, in another period of strife and disorder, and just weeks after his death far away in New York.
Bartók’s scenario originated in 1916 as a pantomime grotesque by Melchior Lengyel. The Hungarian dramatist (later Hollywood screenwriter) had hoped to interest Bartók’s renowned friend Ernst von Dohnányi in writing something to rival the successes of the pre-War Ballets Russes. But it was, rather, Bartók who in the summer of 1917 started to sketch out some ideas. By September 1918 these ideas were taking more concrete form. To his wife and son he wrote: ‘If it works out it will be a devilish piece. Its beginning—a very short introduction before the curtain opens—is a terrible din, clattering, rattling, hooting.’
The Mandarin story is simple. It stars one female prostitute, three male pimps and three male clients: an old man, a young student and a ‘weird’ oriental gentleman. Against the sonic backdrop of the grimy city, the prostitute sets to work in luring clients (seductive clarinet music). The old man (snarling brass) is comic and knows the score (no money, no sex), so is given short shrift by the pimps. The young student (oboe) is shy and nervous, and engages the prostitute more deeply (bassoon) but, despite his growing passion, he too is obviously a waster.
Again the prostitute sets to work (more desperate and higher clarinet music). The Mandarin emerges (the percussion gain a fuller workout), although interplay with the prostitute is tentative and fumbling. Gradually, however, his excitement grows, as does her revulsion. She tries to break away, but he pursues her in a classic chase scene (full orchestra, with drums).
Writing in March 1919 Bartók described what then happens: ‘The [pimps] attack him, rob him, smother him in a quilt, stab him with a sword—but their violence is to no avail. They cannot cope with the Mandarin, who continues to look at the girl with love and longing in his eyes.’ This man from another world does not play by the normal rules. Somehow, he turns the tables on the prostitute. She is made to feel genuine emotion, to realise that she, too, can experience the power of love. Bartók concludes: ‘Finally, feminine instinct helps, and the girl satisfies the Mandarin’s desire; only then does he collapse and die.’
This devilish Mandarin music is Bartók’s answer to Stravinsky’s ballet Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). While he is less rhythmically daring than the Russian, he is just as boldly fragmentary in its construction, and shows his abilities in writing for orchestra at their very finest. This music is about as discordant as Bartók ever became, and it is impossible to divorce the overwhelming sense of angst in this pantomime from the chaos of his everyday life in disintegrating Hungary.
Despite the white-heat of Bartók’s creativity in these fateful months, the final form of The Miraculous Mandarin came about with tighter temperature control. Although most of the music was composed in 1918-19, he only wrote it out for full orchestra in 1924, when a première looked imminent. But he continued to play with the pantomime’s later parts until 1931, ever trying to ensure that it remained as lean and as mean as possible. Bartók was keen to avoid the accusations of ‘dramatic padding’ levelled against his ballet The Wooden Prince.
Although The Miraculous Mandarin failed to grace the Budapest stage in Bartók’s lifetime he did manage to see it live just once: at its controversial première at the Cologne Opera in 1926. The audience was rowdy and irrevocably divided; the critics ranged from adulatory to apoplectic. The reputation of the music director of the Cologne Opera, the Hungarian Jen Szenkár, was on the line. On the following Monday morning the young conductor was summoned before the Mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer (later West Germany’s first Chancellor): how could it ever have crossed Szenkár’s mind to perform such a ‘dirty piece’? Without discussion, Adenauer promptly banned the work. Szenkár considered resigning but was persuaded by Bartók to stay on to fight another day.
As well as the full pantomime version, Bartók prepared a shorter suite, which ends mid-way through the story, after the Chase scene. He hoped that it might prove a more attractive option for concert performance; indeed, it has a very satisfying musical, even symphonic, coherence to it, despite the obvious truncation of the plot. This abbreviated form was premièred in Budapest in 1928 under the baton of the composer for whom Lengyel had originally intended the libretto of The Miraculous Mandarin: Ernst von Dohnányi.
from notes by Malcolm Gillies © 2016