Bartók: Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin

The first quarter of the 20th century was a time of almost unfathomable upheaval in the European sphere, as centuries-old feudalism met its violent end. It seemed natural that artists would feel the impact, and indeed the art that we today call modernism tried its best to negate a millennium of the history of art, literature, and music. And as long as artists push boundaries of acceptability, a fearful establishment is there to fight back.

As one of music’s great 20th-century innovators, Bartók was no stranger to backlash. The objections to his new ideas came to a head with The Miraculous Mandarin—composed as a follow-up to his successful ballet The Wooden Prince (1917) and the controversial but much-lauded opera Bluebeard’s Castle (1918). Mandarin was a more challenging project, and Bartók struggled—first for months, then for years—before completing the ballet-pantomime. Though it was staged in Cologne as early as 1926, thanks to Hungarian censors Mandarin was not performed in Budapest in its entirety until after Bartók’s death.

The problem lay not so much in the music but in the scenario, derived from a one-act play by Menyhért Lengyel (a pantomime grotesque, as the author called it) that left a deep mark on Bartók— although the composer’s vivid musical underscoring of the more lurid aspects of the ballet made it all the more shocking. The gruesome story draws from myth, legend, and fairy tale, yet it also feels deeply rooted in the expressionist extremes found in much early-20th-century literature, art, and music. In the printed score to Mandarin Bartók describes the scenario thus:

In a miserable suburban slum, three thieves force a girl to lure men from the street into her room, whom they proceed to rob. A shabby cavalier and a shy youth are ensnared, but both are rejected as being too poor. The third visitor is an eerie Mandarin, whose unsettling impassivity the girl tries to calm by dancing, but when he anxiously grips her she writhes away in terror. After a wild chase he catches her, at which point the thieves leap from hiding and try to smother him with cushions. But he gets to his feet and gazes longingly at the girl. They stab him clean through with a sword: He staggers, but his yearning is stronger than his wounds. He lunges at her. They string him up by the neck but he will not die. Only when they have taken him down and the girl takes him into her arms [and presumably allows him to achieve sexual release] do his wounds begin to bleed, and he dies.

When the story proved too racy for the Budapest stage, the composer created an orchestral suite of the first two-thirds of the score, which was performed in Budapest in October 1928.