The Miraculous Mandarin: immoral at its time, classic today

Heightened emotions of dance works, written by two 20th century giants, come before and after the work of a world famous contemporary composer at the concert of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra led by Semyon Bychkov.

One of Bartók’s most popular and most performed plays, The Miraculous Mandarin always has a huge impact on the audience and can be interpreted in many different ways. On the surface, the story is a brutal psychological crime, but its other, deeper layer is the story of the estranged urban person, human soul, addiction, violence, and the redemptive power of love. These topics have been hot since the time of its premiere until today.

Once Bartók found Menyhért Lengyel’s written work, he knew immediately that he wanted to compose music for it. As he wrote to his wife in 1918:

“It will be diabolic music if it succeeds. The beginning… a terrible noise, clanging, clattering, rushing; the listener would be led from the turmoil of a metropolis to the tramp ranch.”

The composer himself spoke about this piece, which he claimed to be his favourite, the following way:

“At the tramp ranch, three men force a young girl to lure men to her, who are then robbed by them. The first is a poor lad, the second is no different, but the third is a rich Chinese. The catch is good, the girl amuses him with a dance, and desire awakens in the mandarin. Love flares up fiercely in him, but the girl hates him. The tramps attack him, rob him, suffocate him with the pillow, stab him through with a sword, and then hang him, but they can’t handle the mandarin who still looks at the girl with loving and longing eyes. In the end she complies with the mandarin’s wish who then dies.”

In its own time, the Mandarin received a negative reception. After its premiere in Cologne in 1926, its critics not only considered its musical world unacceptable, but also declared it to be immoral, and the mayor of the city, Konrad Adenauer, immediately banned it. Its first performance in Hungary only took place in 1945, and even then with a modified text. Although earlier attempts were made to play it, decision-makers considered it scandalous and did not allow the premiere. After that, however, starting in 1949 with the original, uncensored story, it was performed over and over again, and became a regular show in the repertoire of the Opera House with different choreographies. It is still often performed in concert halls today in a semi-staged or concert-like version. On March 31, at Müpa, we can listen to how Semyon Bychkov, a Russian-born conductor leading a Czech orchestra, interprets and puts this thought-provoking piece into today’s context.

The Miraculous Mandarin is followed by the Hungarian premiere of Études symphoniques by contemporary French organist-composer Thierry Escaich. Escaich has been constantly commissioned by the world’s greatest composers to compose new works like chamber music works, theatre pieces, concert pieces, symphonic and chamber orchestra pieces. He has already written ballets at the request of the New York Ballet Company, of the Louvre, and for films; his works have been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Berlin Konzerthaus Orchestra, the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra or the Orchester de Paris, just to name a few. This time in Budapest, the piano soloist will be the brilliant Seong-Jin Cho, born in Korea and living in Berlin.


Seong-Jin Cho

In the second half of the evening, the audience will hear a concert-like performance of a twentieth-century dance piece. Unlike the Mandarin, Stravinsky’s Petrushka was a huge success at its 1911 premiere in Paris. Petrushka is the Russian version of the character appearing in many European puppet theatre cultures – Punch in England, Polichinelle in France, Kasperl(e) in Italy and Germany. Stravinsky’s ballet tells the story of Petrushka’s love, jealousy and downfall. Petrushka is in love with the Ballerina, but she chooses the Moor. The jealous Petrushka challenges the Moor to a duel, who kills Petrushka. His spirit is resurrected, but his huge duel with the Charlatan leads to his final death. Similar to Bartók’s work, Stravinsky’s is also disturbing and thought-provoking, which in four scenes tells about love, fight, violence and death – the tragedy of human existence.

We recommend this 31 March concert to those who, even on such a warm spring evening, prefer thought-provoking, philosophical works that might disturb them for a while but surely stay with them on the longer run.

Article: Zsuzsanna Deák

Translation: Zsófia Hacsek