Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin Suite

Notes by TŌN oboist Zachary Boeding

Of all of Béla Bartók’s works, none aroused more controversy than his one-act pantomime ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin. In 1917, play and film writer Menyhért Lengyel published A csodálatos mandarin in Nyugat, a Hungarian literary magazine. The grotesque tale caught the eye of Bartók, an avid subscriber of the magazine, who later detailed the plot: “Three thugs force a beautiful young girl to seduce men and lure them into their den, where they will be robbed. The first turns out to be poor, the second likewise, but the third is a Chinese, a good catch, as it turns out. The girl entertains him with her dance. The Mandarin’s desire is aroused. His love flares up, but the girl recoils from him. The thugs attack the Mandarin, rob him, smother him with pillows, stab him with a sword, all in vain, because the Mandarin continues watching the girl with eyes full of yearning . . . the girl complies with the Mandarin’s wish, whereupon he drops dead.” He immediately started sketching out themes for the work, but did not fully invest himself until after signing an agreement to the rights with Lengyel in 1918.

Though completed in 1919, the premiere of The Miraculous Mandarin took place in 1926 in Cologne, Germany, and, unsurprisingly, due to its risqué content, caused such an uproar with the German public that the ballet was suspended from production after the first night. It was better received at its second performance in Prague a year later, but never gained enough popularity and was subsequently censored by the communist regime. Bartók arranged the music into the present (and more successful) concert suite in 1927.

The work begins like a dark thriller film: wild, rhythmic music depicts a seedy, dimly-lit street where the three thugs weave in and out of the crowd on the way to their hideout. Bartók uses certain instruments and musical motives to portray the characters: the clarinet whirls and twirls, dancing in the window as the captive girl, seducing the three men; the oboe as the first two victims; and the trombone glissandos and the pentatonic scales as the Mandarin. Bartók choose to omit the death of the Mandarin from the suite, ending it instead with a raucous chase scene where he is beat up by the thugs.