The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók was born in the town Nagyszentmiklós, today Sânnicolau Mare, Romania. He received musical training in Pozsony, today Bratislava, and at the Academy of Music in Budapest. He established himself successfully as a concert pianist and soon began teaching piano himself at the academy in Budapest. Bartók also got off to a promising start as a composer when the conductor Hans Richter led performances of his early symphonic poem Kossúth in Budapest and Manchester.
Hungarian folk music became a powerful source of inspiration for Bartók. He was aware that many supposedly Hungarian folk songs were actually popular songs written to imitate folk music. In those days, the brilliant music of gypsy bands also greatly distorted people’s ideas about what Hungarian music had originally been like. It was necessary to visit the most remote rural areas of Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, the Carpathians, and Danubian Wallachia, where one could find and systematically record folk music in its authentic form. And that is just what Bartók did: he made recordings on phonograph cylinders and notated what he heard, then at home he subjected his findings to scholarly study and published collected editions of the songs. As a folklorist, he earned an international reputation as an authority. Even more importantly, however, he was able to carry over all of those limping rhythms, unmelodious melodies, and inharmonious harmonies into his own composing, just as Leoš Janáček did on a more modest scale in this country.
Bartók’s stage works all take inspiration from loneliness, conflict in the relations between men and women, and aversion to the cruelty of the modern world. The stage trilogy begins in 1911 with the one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle, followed six years later by the ballet The Wooden Prince, which incidentally shares a motif in common with Stravinsky’s Petrushka: a wooden marionette as the central character. The cycle climaxes with the ballet pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin, a wild, unadorned portrayal of the baseness, primitivism, and brutality of human nature. The scenario is played out entirely in the spirit of Expressionism, a European artistic movement that emerged from the tragedy of the First World War and dominated the arts on the continent, including music.
The Miraculous Mandarin is a story about the life-giving power of love ruined by inhumaneness. The work was written in 1918, but until 1924 it remained in the form of a reduction for piano four-hands. Under the clerical authoritarian regime of Horthy’s Hungary, where Bartók definitely did not have things easy, the authorities twice thwarted attempts to have the pantomime performed. Bartók did not finish orchestrating The Miraculous Mandarin until preparations began for the premiere in Cologne, Germany. The performance finally took place on 27 November 1926 with Jenő Szenkár conducting. The audience left in shock, and no more performances were given. The Miraculous Mandarin was banned by the mayor of Cologne, none other than Konrad Adenauer, the future first post-war chancellor of West Germany. He justified the ban on the grounds of “immorality, morbidity of the subject, and political (!) indecency”. No performances of The Miraculous Mandarin were permitted in Hungary until after 1945. Bartók’s work was not fully rehabilitated in his homeland until 1956, eleven years after the great composer’s death in New York.
The action of the ballet pantomime is based on a story by Melchior Lengyel that was very controversial in its day. We are taken to a dark lair in an unnamed metropolis in the West, where three criminals are operating a well-established business: with the aid of a young prostitute, they lure wealthy johns into the flat, where they rob and murder them. The girl lures in two men, one after the other, but neither has any money, so they are “only” beaten and unceremoniously thrown out. The third man to enter is the mysterious central character, a foreigner dressed as a Chinese mandarin, who at first seems to be indifferent to the girl’s feigned feelings. The prostitute therefore tries her best to seduce him until she actually awakens wild passion of unusual force in him. When the mandarin—like other unfortunate men before him—is murdered by the three ruffians, he is brought back to life miraculously by the power of his suddenly awakened love. The same thing is repeated after a second attempted murder, when the Chinese man, spattered with his own blood, again rises and professes his love for the prostitute. Only then does the girl understand that the mandarin will not finally die until after a kiss in her embrace. Once that take place, the ballet ends with a third, successful murder of the main character.
The orchestral suite from the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin is captivating mainly because of its fiery, pulsating rhythms. Often, Bartók intentionally allows the level of lyrical warmth to approach absolute zero. Powerful moments are amplified by explosive dynamics, shifting accents, vigorous tremolos, expressive sighs, wild trills, and barbaric fast passages. There is a lack of sustained, memorable melodic themes; in spite of this, the music is wonderful, seldom giving listeners a chance to catch their breath.