Gerard McBurney discusses the political and social background of The Miraculous Mandarin. (21:35)


Bartók was strongly attracted to Menyhért Lengyel’s dramatic and horrifying tale The Miraculous Mandarin, with its underlying message about the power of human love. As The Miraculous Mandarin begins, a girl is forced by three thugs to stand in a window, luring men inside to be robbed. Her first two victims, an old rake and a shy young man, are penniless; the third, the eerie but wealthy mandarin, presents a horrifying challenge. The girl finds him repulsive, but she slowly begins her dance of seduction. The thugs attack and rob the mandarin; they try to kill him three times, but the mandarin will not die. His eyes are fixed with longing on the girl. After she finally gives herself to him, he falls lifeless to the ground. Bartók responded to the striking symmetry of the story’s design. Three times, the music begins from a total standstill and builds to a shattering climax—each section, or “decoy game,” as Bartók calls it, represents one of the seductions. The mandarin’s encounter with the girl is the keystone of the scheme—his entrance is announced by three shattering cries from the trombones—and the second half of the score balances the first. Bartók uses orchestration to articulate form, launching each seduction with a solo clarinet and marking each of the three murder attempts with cymbal crashes.


Béla Bartók was born in the Hungarian village of Nagyszentmiklós (now in Romania), on March 25, 1881. He studied composition in Budapest but first attracted attention as a pianist. He was inspired to find his own voice as a composer by a 1902 performance of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, and later by the folk music of his native land that he collected, studied, and absorbed. The successful Budapest premiere of his ballet The Wooden Prince in 1917, and the staging of his opera Bluebeard’s Castle there the following year, established him as a composer. The Miraculous Mandarin was his third and final theater score. For the rest of his career, he wrote only concert works—a decision that produced a number of masterpieces, but denied the full flowering of his theatrical talent. Bartók moved to the US in 1940; he died in New York City on September 26, 1945.


In 1917, while he was putting the finishing touches on The Wooden Prince, Bartók read Menyhért Lengyel’s tale of The Miraculous Mandarin in a Hungarian literary magazine. Bartók immediately informed Lengyel of his interest in the “grotesque pantomime” and began to write music. His first sketches date from August 1917. He worked on the piano score in 1918 and early 1919, completed the orchestration in 1923, and continued to make revisions the following year. Although a piano reduction was published in 1925, Bartók wasn’t satisfied with the ending and continued to fuss with it. He didn’t put his final thoughts on paper until 1931.


Even before he finished orchestrating the score, Bartók began to doubt that he would ever see the work staged. In fact, the performance history of The Miraculous Mandarin is marked by such formidable struggles that the score didn’t receive the acclamation it deserves until after the composer’s death. The premiere of The Miraculous Mandarin, in the conservative city of Cologne in November 1926, caused an uproar. Audience members walked out, the conductor was officially reprimanded by the mayor Konrad Adenauer, and the work was subsequently banned. But Cologne wasn’t at the heart of the music world, and it wasn’t the composer’s hometown; the incident passed without making international headlines. The Miraculous Mandarin wasn’t staged in Budapest until 1946, after the composer’s death, and a quarter of a century after the score was finished. A production in Budapest had been announced in 1931, as part of the celebration honoring Bartók fiftieth birthday, but it was canceled after the dress rehearsal, when officials got wind of the work’s subject matter. Another performance scheduled for 1941 was opposed by the clergy. The problems were both the graphic, intense music and the story—a violent and erotic tale with implicit social criticism.

Adapted from comments by Phillip Huscher written for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. © 2006 by Chicago Symphony Orchestra