Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin Suite

Notes by TŌN horn player William Loveless VI

“It will be hellish music. The prelude before the curtain goes up will be very short and sound like pandemonium.” —Bartók to his wife about the music in The Miraculous Mandarin

Following the horrors of World War I, the ability to shock an audience in Europe had become more difficult; what could anybody write that would challenge what has already happened in our world? Perhaps this is what drew Béla Bartók to set The Miraculous Mandarin to music: a chance to shock the audience.

The actions of the pantomime are summarized in the score: “In a shabby room in the slums, three tramps, bent on robbery, force a girl to lure prospective victims from the street. A down-at-heel cavalier and a timid youth, who succumb to her attractions, are found to have thin wallets and are thrown out. The third ‘guest’ is the eerie Mandarin. His impassivity frightens the girl, who tries to thaw him by dancing—but when he feverishly embraces her, she runs from him in terror. After a wild chase he catches her, at which point the three tramps leap from their hiding place, rob him of everything he has, and try to smother him under a pile of cushions. But he gets to his feet, his eyes fixed passionately on the girl. They run him through with a sword; he is shaken, but his desire is stronger than his wounds, and he hurls himself on her. They hang him up, but it is impossible for him to die. Only when they cut him down, and the girl takes him into her arms, do his wounds begin to bleed and he dies.”

Rather than depicting something so grotesque as a beast or monster, the grittiness and depravity come from humans in the modern age, who are capable of the most violent and hellish acts.

The Chaotic City
From the beginning the music is pure pandemonium. Many things happening at once: blaring horns, quick strings, obstinate winds. This texture permeates the entire piece as the chaos of the scene never leaves, or perhaps is just outside the door. The music turns to dance themes—erotic, vivacious; beautiful, but meant to lure you in. Bartók traveled throughout Hungary, Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria notating and recording music and sounds he heard in villages. Listen for these European folk impressions, primarily in the clarinet. The frenzy of music continues until the end, a continuous whirlwind for the performers and the audience.