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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 7 April 2012

Variations on a Theme

April 1, 2012

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Looking for a change from your go-to classics? Take a cue from the LSM team as we recommend listening alternatives to the usual masterworks.

Bela BartokThe Masterwork: Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19

(Composed between 1918-24)

At the termination of World War I and just five years after Stravinsky’s scandalously pulsating Rite of Spring and the radical harmonies of Debussy’s Ballet Jeux, Béla Bartók composed one of ballet’s pillar works, the infamous Miraculous Mandarin. The six-movement ballet features a stormy narrative based on Menyhért Lengyel’s publication depicting a “grotesque pantomime” of seduction, debauchery and murder. The tale ignited the post-war spirit. Three gangsters force a young woman to seduce select suitors into their hideout where they are robbed. The three gentlemen callers, musically illustrated through rhythmic counterpoint, are a poor man, a young man, and a wealthy Mandarin bureaucrat. While seduced by the young woman’s dance, the gangsters strip the Mandarin of everything. He keeps his eyes on the young woman, unable to cut his gaze. The gangsters smother and stab him, yet he refuses to die until the young woman allows him to embrace her. 
Although an elaborate score was completed in 1918, Bartók did not complete the orchestration until 1924. The premiere took place on November 27, 1926 in Cologne, Germany, a city full of churches and regulations. The production was considered inhumane and apocalyptic, and Bartók was banned from the stage. He was accused of having an imagination corrupted by political crisis and war. The ballet wasn’t performed in his hometown of Budapest until after his death in 1945. The orchestral suite for concert performance incorporates most of the original score continuously instead of each breaking scene.  
Unable to fight in World War I, Bartók collected folk songs from soldiers. His orchestration encrypts the emotion which was raised during the wartime period. Harmonically and rhythmically, Bartók conveys an eerie sentiment in every instrument down to the triangle, including cumbersome augmented octaves and sinister glissandos. The seductive dances are exhibited in the provocative clarinet solos and menacing bass licks.             Krista Martynes

Éric Champagne recommends…

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
The Prince of the Pagodes
Year written: 1957

Similarities: The Prince of the Pagodes is certainly one of the most underrated ballet scores of the twentieth century. Its expressive power and its eclectic modernism (that recall Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Lutoslawski,) make it a work as flamboyant and energetic as Bartók’s ballet.

Differences:  Influenced by Canadian composer Colin McPhee, Britten incorporates a great number of Eastern elements into his work (pentatonic scales, polyphonic stratifications, gamelan-inspired effects...) while Bartók is more subtle in his stylistic borrowings (he only uses a pentatonic theme associated with the Mandarin). It is clear that Bartók’s score has significantly more metaphysical and universal references than Britten’s ballet.

Essential Listening:
Benjamin Britten: The Prince of the Pagodas
London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen

Paul E. Robinson recommends…

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Bluebeard’s Castle
Years written: 1911-18

Similarities:  The scenario for The Miraculous Mandarin and the libretto for Bluebeard’s Castle both have death at the centre of their stories and both have strong erotic overtones. Both scores feature rich and imaginative orchestration and are tremendously exciting.

Differences: The Miraculous Mandarin is a ballet score and Bluebeard’s Castle is an opera. One special moment in the opera is the opening of the Fifth Door. Bartók adds an organ and extra brass, the latter usually positioned in the balcony.

Essential Listening:
Bluebeard’s Castle
Willard White, Elena Zhidkova; London Symphony/Valery Gergiev
LSO Live 0685 (2009)

Frédéric Cardin recommends…

Albert Roussel (1869-1937)
Bacchus et Ariane
Year written: 1930

Similarities:  Muscular rhythms, colourful orchestrations, modernist harmonies.

Differences: The writing for woodwinds is especially lighter and more elaborate, typical of a certain French sensibility. A bit more melodic, dance-like and approachable than Bartók, which will surprise some people considering that it was composed a few years later.

Essential Listening:
La Coronela (The Lady Colonel)
Naxos, 8.552250 (2010)

Translation: Laura Bates

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