Six things you should know about Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin

Hungary, 1918-20: the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapses and a series of revolutions and counter-revolutions see the birth and demise of the First Hungarian Republic, the Hungarian Soviet Republic and the Hungarian Republic, each lasting a matter of months. Against this turbulent political background, Bartók began writing his pantomime-ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. Ahead of the LSO’s performance of the work on Thursday 19 December, here are six things you need to know.

1. The ballet is based on a one-act play

Bartók was inspired to start writing after reading The Miraculous Mandarin in the literary magazine Nyugat. Its author, Melchior Lengyel, was a successful Hungarian playwright, and even went on to become a Hollywood screenwriter. The provocative tale is summarised in the ballet’s score as follows:

‘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.’

2. Bartók’s travels through Eastern Europe found a voice in this ballet

In the years before writing The Miraculous Mandarin, Bartók travelled extensively across Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. Along the way, he notated the distinctive folk sounds and melodies he heard in remote villages, to be used later in this ballet.

3. It was originally banned

Initially scored from 191819, Bartók orchestrated The Miraculous Mandarin in full from 192324. The first performance of the pantomime ballet in full was on 27 November 1926 at the Cologne Opera. The response was uproarious! A quote from a German musical journal reads:

‘Cologne, a city of churches, monasteries and chapels … has lived to see its first true [musical] scandal. Catcalls, whistling, stamping, and booing … which did not subside even after the composer’s personal appearance, nor even after the safety curtain went down … The press, with the exception of the left, protests, the clergy of both denominations hold meetings, the mayor of the city intervenes dictatorially and bans the pantomime from the repertoire … Waves of moral outrage engulf the city.’

The very next day, the Mayor of Cologne Konrad Adenauer (who later became West Germany’s first Chancellor) summoned the Cologne Opera’s Music Director Jen Szenkár and chastised him for conducting such a provocative work. It was banned there and then.

4. It was generally performed as a concert suite during Bartók’s lifetime

Bartók prepared a shorter version of The Miraculous Mandarin which cut the story short, ending after the chase scene. Even though this concert suite was written to include only two thirds of the original music, during the composer’s lifetime it was performed far more often than the full version in all its lurid detail.

5. Bartók never saw the pantomime performed on stage in Budapest

The Budapest Opera was all set to perform The Miraculous Mandarin in 1931 to mark the composer’s 50th birthday. However the performance was cancelled after the dress rehearsal. It would be another 15 years before the work received its Budapest premiere in December 1946. Tragically Bartók had passed away the previous year in New York, so he never got to see his pantomime ballet performed in his home country’s capital.

6. Full performances of The Miraculous Mandarin are still relatively rare

Until recently, performances of the shorter suite outnumbered performances of the complete ballet. A pivotal moment came in 1983, when a friend of the late Bartók, Antal Doráti, conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the full ballet, bringing the complete score back into the public eye. Since then, the ballet has grown in popularity and is increasingly performed in its entirety. A new edition published in 2000 and edited by the composer’s son, Peter Bartók, restored a significant amount of music that had previously been lost, using manuscripts and corrections to add even more to our appreciation of the complete ballet score.

The LSO, conducted by François-Xavier Roth, perform Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin alongside Elgar's Cello Concerto and the world premiere of Sophya Polevaya's Spellbound Tableaux on Thursday 19 December at the Barbican. Click here to find out more or to book tickets.

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