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Composer Bartók Would Have Been 134 This Year

Besides being the 70th year of the end of World War II, it’s also the 70th year of the death of the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945). Some of his most famous compositions include his Concerto for Orchestra; his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; and his ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. Bartók’s music is known for his including folk tunes in many of his pieces. He traveled throughout Hungary and other central European countries collecting folk music from those regions. To escape the spread of Nazi fascism including in his home country, Bartók fled to New York City around 1940, and died of Leukemia in 1945.

His ballet The Miraculous Mandarin was premiered in 1926, 7 years after it was completed, but was considered quite risqué, and was withdrawn after the first performance. The San Francisco Symphony’s program notes state:

Anyone who thinks the modern theater has reached an unrivaled level of depravity need only look back a century to find stage scenarios as shocking as anything likely to hit the boards today. The Miraculous Mandarin, completed in 1919, is a lurid tale of prostitution, fraud, theft, and murder.

. . .

Bartók described the work’s plot: “Three [thugs] force a beautiful girl to lure men into their den so they can rob them. . . . The third [visitor] is a wealthy Chinese. He is a good catch, and the girl entertains him by dancing. The Mandarin’s desire is aroused, he is inflamed by passion, but the girl shrinks from him in horror. The [thugs] attack him, rob him, smother him in a quilt, and stab him with a sword, but their violence is of no avail. They cannot kill the Mandarin, who continues to look at the girl with love and longing in his eyes. Finally feminine instinct helps: the girl satisfies the Mandarin’s desire, and only then does he collapse and die.”

The orchestral suite from the ballet has been performed subsequently. Here is a terrific performance of the suite from Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the London Proms, with Edward Gardner conducting. Now, while the men seem to be dressed quite formally, some of the ladies seem to be a bit too casual, wearing perhaps a bit too revealing attire. Maybe they think this is a nightclub? Oh, well. But then, maybe I’m just an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy stick-in-the-mud. But this is definitely a virtuosic performance of very difficult music.

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