I was thinking of writing about Beethoven’s Fifth this week, because it will be featured in the Feb. 5 concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, but everything that can be said about this symphony has already been written. One can only hope that, as he and pianist Andrew Russo did with the recent performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, music director Robert Moody will find something new in the music itself.
Another work on the program, Bartok’s “Miraculous Mandarin” suite, is a more interesting subject, especially since the tenor of this year’s season tends toward the succes de scandale with “The Rite of Spring,” “Apres midi d’un faune,” Richard Strauss, et al.
Bartok’s ballet, based on a story by Melchoir Lengyel, caused a riot and was banned after its first performance in Cologne in 1926, and is now generally performed as a suite incorporating only two-thirds of the original music. This is one of the few examples (can anyone think of any others?) of the music itself, rather than the action of the ballet, being deemed too erotic for general audiences.
The story seems to be an allegory of the artistic temperament.
Bartok’s own description of the plot. which he called a beautiful story, reads: “Three Apaches force a beautiful girl to lure men into their den so that they can rob them. The first is a poor youth, the second is not better off, but the third, however is a wealthy Chinese. He is a good catch and the girl entertains him by dancing. The Mandarin’s desire is aroused, he is inflamed with passion, but the girl shrinks from him in horror.
“The Apaches attack him, rob him, smother him with a quilt, stab him with a sword, but their violence is of no avail. They cannot cope with the Mandarin, who continues to look at the girl with love and longing in his eyes. Finally, feminine instinct helps, and the girl satisfies the Mandarin’s desire; only then does he collapse and die.”
In the ballet, the thugs finally try to hang the Mandarin from a light fixture. The light goes out, and he begins to glow in the dark.
Some analyses portray the girl and her captors as victims of the soulless city, the girl being rescued from this amoral world by her encounter with the real (natural) in the person of the Mandarin. This reading makes sense, given Bartok’s musical depiction of city chaos in the opening scene of the ballet. In this case, Bartok is the anti-Gershwin. There is nothing romantic about his city, and its only dynamic is brutality.
“The Miraculous Mandarin” represents a turning point in Bartok’s music, when he acquired his most distinctive voice. He loved the work, making heroic efforts to have it presented everywhere he could.
It is full of musical special effects, from quarter-ones on the violins to a wide range of percussive instruments and techniques. The motif of the Mandarin is a minor third glissando on the trombones, and he is introduced by a pentatonic scale accompanied by tritone chords, which used to be called “the devil in music.”
The complete ballet music was performed in 1983 by the Detroit Symphony under Antal Dorati, a friend of the composer. In 2000, an Urtext Edition was published by Bartok’s son, Peter.
The ballet itself has been staged by the Moscow Ballet and Sadler’s Wells, and sets have ranged from the Wagnerian mythological to the squalid. I would go a long way to see it.
Come to think of it, it would make a very nice project for the Portland Ballet.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: