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Composed: 1918-19, 1924

Length: 20 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd and 2nd = piccolo 1 and 2), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd = E-flat clarinet; 3rd = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, large snare drum, soprano snare drum, tam tam, triangle, xylophone), harp, piano, celesta, organ, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 28, 1957, Alfred Wallenstein conducting

About this Piece

Béla Bartók composed his pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin (A csodálatos mandarin) in short score between October 1918 and May 1919. At the time, he was living under difficult conditions in a small village east of Budapest. The defeat of Austria-Hungary in World War I and its subsequent fragmentation translated into hardship and privation for central and southeastern Europe in the years after the war. The Bartóks had no electricity, no running water, little fuel, and not much food, and, to compound the situation, the composer contracted Spanish Influenza in 1918. Medical help had to be brought in from Budapest; eventually, the family gave up and moved to the new Hungarian capital.

The capital itself was a site of political upheaval, with a rapid succession of governments in 1918-19. In the fall of 1919, a right-wing government under Miklós Horthy took power, and the left-leaning Bartók fell under suspicion for his ethnomusicological activities, which had taken him into Transylvania and Slovakia, both formerly Austro-Hungarian territories that had become parts of two newly-formed nations, Romania and Czechoslovakia. The right-wing press attacked him for secretly being a Romanian Nationalist and a traitor to Hungary. Bartók, with no prospect of securing a performance for Mandarin in Budapest, set the work aside until a first performance was arranged for Cologne. The composer orchestrated the pantomime in 1924, and it was premiered on November 27, 1926. The work was not performed in Budapest until after Bartók's death, in 1945.

The scenario masks a symbolic fable about the persistent power of love with a brutal plot dripping with sexuality and violence. Three tramps force a girl to entice passers-by into a dank room so they can rob the hapless men. The first mark, a scruffy old man, has no money, so the tramps throw him back out onto the street. The second victim, a shy young man, meets the same fate. But the third man is something extraordinary, the Mandarin. His otherworldly gaze frightens the girl, but the tramps force her to dance for him. The Mandarin is overcome with love of the violently passionate variety; he chases the girl, and, when he catches her, the tramps rob him and drag him to the bed, where they try to suffocate him with a pillow. But the Mandarin doesn't die. He fixes his gaze on the girl again, with a look of wild longing in his eyes. One of the tramps grabs a rusty old sword and runs it through the Mandarin three times. The Mandarin sinks momentarily to the floor, but rises again and throws himself at the girl. The three tramps overpower him, bind him, and hang him from the light. His limp body falls to the floor and begins to glow a sickly greenish-blue. The girl signals to the tramps to free the Mandarin, and she lets him embrace her. Once he has satisfied his passion, he dies.

The Hungarian Eugen Szenkár, conductor at the premiere in Cologne, recalled the uproar caused by the work in his Memoirs. "At the end of the performance there was a concert of whistling and catcalls! Bartók was present, sitting in the auditorium as he had at all the rehearsals. The uproar was so deafening and lengthy that the fire curtain had to be brought down. Nevertheless, we endured it and weren't afraid to appear in front of the curtain, at which point the whistles resumed with a vengeance. It could have been that there were isolated 'Bravos,' but everything was lost beneath the tumult!

"And then the next day came the reviews. What was there, especially in the Volkszeitung (People's Newspaper), the paper of the Catholic Center Party, can hardly be repeated. Still, my good friend didn't let it get to him; he simply wanted to make a small correction to the clarinet part, and his only worry was to go right to the opera house and to look for the part among the orchestral material. That was Bartók! Meanwhile, there was a phone call from the mayor's office; I must come to the office immediately. I had a bad feeling. Dr. Adenauer received me coolly and with reserve, but then he exploded, reproaching me most bitterly, demanding to know how I could perform such a work of filth, and ordering the work's immediate withdrawal. I tried to convince him that he was wrong; Bartók was our greatest contemporary composer; we should not make ourselves the laughingstock of the musical world. But he wouldn't budge from insisting that the piece disappear from the schedule."

The Miraculous Mandarin was withdrawn after its premiere at then-Oberbürgermeister Konrad Adenauer's insistence. Music had offered up a work of great importance (Bartók thought the score one of his best, and hated that his ballet The Wooden Prince, which he thought far inferior, was performed far more often), but it fell victim to the struggle between artistic adventure and political caution, between the left and the right that defined Germany in the 1920s. (Adenauer was a prominent figure in the conservative Catholic Center Party and almost became chancellor twice during the Weimar Republic before finally winning the office in 1949 as the first leader of West Germany.)

The Suite addresses concerns about the "filth" of the plot by stopping at the point where the Mandarin chases the girl, before the tramps' three attempts to kill him and his sexual union with the girl. The Suite begins with the pantomime's overture, a striking portrait of the unsettling dynamism and vigor of the seedier side of the modern urban landscape. A languorous melody unfolds slowly, seductively on the clarinet as the girl appears at the window to entice her first victim. Stuttering rising glissandos in the trombones characterize the stumbling, disheveled old man, the tramps' first victim. The girl returns to the window with a variation of the clarinet melody to lure the young man, who is represented by the oboe. Further development of the clarinet theme marks the girl's third appearance in the window - now shuddering strings, glissandos in the harp and piano, and breathless figures in the other winds heighten the tension. The trombones, reinforced by cymbals and bass drum and underpinned by an unsettling tremolo in the whole orchestra, announce the arrival of the Mandarin with terrifying majesty. Bartók uses the Mandarin's motive as the basis of the maiden's dance. The chase elicits music of sustained rhythmic energy unmatched elsewhere in Bartók's output.

- John Mangum holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA. He spent the summer as a fellow at the University of Erfurt in Germany.