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“I like it here”: Béla Bartók and The Cleveland Orchestra

The Cleveland Orchestra has a long history of performing and promoting contemporary music. From its beginning, the Orchestra has hosted composers from Sergei Rachmaninoff to Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky, and commissioned and/or premiered works from Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to concert music for the theremin. One composer who has left an increasingly large mark on our legacy is Béla Bartók (1881-1945), the great Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist.

Béla Bartók, circa 1940

Prior to his guest artist debut at the Orchestra, Bartók visited Cleveland on February 22, 1928 as part of a cross-country lecture-recital tour under the auspices of Pro-Musica, an organization dedicated to supporting the music of living contemporary composers. Bartók’s lecture was on the subject of Hungarian folk music, of which he was one of the greatest living experts, having spent many years in the countryside as an ethnomusicologist collecting and recording folk songs. The lecture was paired with performances of some of Bartók’s own folk-influenced compositions. While Bartók’s words were praised by Cleveland critics, his music was generally regarded as too dissonant, too angular, and too modern. Unfortunately, due to the exhausting nature of Bartók’s schedule he had only one day to spend in Cleveland. However, he did find some time to enjoy the comforts of Cleveland; in a newspaper interview from December 2, 1940 in the Cleveland Press, he recalled “I was taken to a small Hungarian restaurant in a Hungarian neighborhood by some friends, and they served wine just like in Hungary – it was really remarkable, in prohibition time.”

Bartók’s more substantial second visit to Cleveland in December 1940 to perform his Second Piano Concerto with The Cleveland Orchestra attracted far more attention than his first. The Cleveland papers covered Bartók’s arrival and performance extensively, publishing several interviews and portraits of him. True to form, Bartók spoke candidly in these; in one interview with the Plain Dealer, he was quoted as saying “I do not like the weather about Cleveland. It is nasty. It is uninspiring. Still, you are lucky. You have plenty of fuel and good lodgings. That is more than we have in Europe. I like it here. I am happy.”

(From Left to Right): Coverage of Bartók in the Plain Dealer (December 5, 1940) and Cleveland News (December 3, 1940)

Bartók performed his concerto on December 5 and 7, 1940 under the baton of Artur Rodzinski (our second music director, 1933-43). Reactions to the performance by the press were contradictory: Arthur Loesser’s December 6 review for the Cleveland Press was titled “Bartok Concerto Full of Life” while Elmore Bacon’s review of the same date for the Cleveland News was titled “Bartok Concerto Called Modern, Brilliant, Empty.” Unfortunately, audio from that concert has not survived, but in its stead you can listen to a 1970 archival recording of the Orchestra with Claudio Abbado as guest conductor and with Maurizio Pollini on piano.

In contrast to the mixed reviews received by his concerto, Bartók himself was warmly welcomed. Following the performance on the 7th, 500 people attended a massive post-concert reception at Wade Park Manor in his honor. The event, sponsored by several local Hungarian groups, was a mini celebration of Hungarian culture, with live music performance, dancing of the palotas (palace dance), and food which included pozsonyi (a crescent-shaped pastry) and dobos torta (a many-layered sponge cake with chocolate buttercream and caramel).

Left: Picture of Bartók’s hands at the piano, taken by Geoffrey Landesman, c. December 1940
Right: Bartók’s signature in the guest artist autograph book

A few seasons later, The Cleveland Orchestra again prominently featured the music of Bartók, giving the United States premiere of his Second Violin Concerto. The January 21 and 23, 1943 concerts were under the baton of Rodzinski, with the new concertmaster, Tossy Spivakovsky, playing the violin solo. Spivakovsky became a proponent of Bartók’s music, and managed to successfully convince the Orchestra’s new music director, Erich Leinsdorf (1943-1946), to grant him time off in mid-October of the same year so that he could perform the concerto with the New York Philharmonic (incidentally then conducted by Rodzinski) so that the very ill Bartók could hear a performance. Bartók was so moved by Spivakovsky’s playing at the concert that he later sent him a manuscript of sketches for the concerto.

In the many seasons following these two programs, the Orchestra has performed Bartók’s music with greater and greater frequency. Several pieces have found their way into a regular rotation, with The Miraculous Mandarin, Opus 19 (either in full or suite form) being programmed in sixteen out of the last forty-seven seasons. The Orchestra has also released several commercial recordings of Bartók’s orchestral music over the past several decades.  

A selection of several of The Cleveland Orchestra’s commercial recordings of Bartók’s music in reel-to-reel and CD formats

Our current season (2015-16) features four of Bartók’s compositions on two subscription programs: the opera Bluebeard’s Castle and his ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, Opus 19 (4/7 - 4/10), and the Violin Concerto No. 2 and Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (5/12 - 5/14). In light of this week’s concerts, we’ll be examining Bartók’s sole opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, and his ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, Opus 19.

Bluebeard’s Castle: Seven Keys for Seven Doors
The libretto to Bluebeard’s Castle was written in 1910 by Béla Balázs, a Hungarian poet and roommate of Zoltán Kodály (Kodály was a close artistic ally and friend of Bartók’s). The highly symbolic story depicts Bluebeard and his new bride, Judith, arriving at his dark and dank castle. Judith spies seven locked doors and, desiring to let light and fresh air in, demands the keys to them. One by one, against the protestations of Bluebeard, she opens each door, revealing a series of tableaux all stained with blood. At the opening of the last door, she discovers his past three wives locked inside, whereupon she takes her place with them.

Bartók first wrote Bluebeard’s Castle in 1911, but reworked it over several years until it reached its final form in 1917.  While as a whole the opera is recognizably in the dominant late-romantic style of the turn of the century (very much influenced by his older contemporary Richard Strauss), each door Judith opens unlocks a new musical landscape, from the harsh dissonances and menacing flurries of strings and xylophone depicting Bluebeard’s torture chamber behind the first door, to the immense and climactic chords for the full orchestra depicting the endless expanse of his domain behind the fifth door. You can listen below to the opening of the fifth door, taken from an archival recording of a November 11, 1970 concert production conducted by Pierre Boulez with Tatiana Troyanos as Judith and Zoltán Kelemen as Bluebeard.

The first time Bluebeard’s Castle was heard in Cleveland was a concert performance (just singers with no costumes or set) with piano accompaniment at the Cleveland Music School Settlement on December 13, 1954. However, the first full-orchestra performance was with The Cleveland Orchestra on April 13 and 15, 1961, conducted by Louis Lane, with Irene Jordan as Judith, Yi-Kwei Sze as Bluebeard, and the Orchestra’s then-general manager, A. Beverly Barksdale, as the Voice of the Bard. In total, the Orchestra has performed the opera  in four pairs of concerts performances.  

The Miraculous Mandarin: “I get knocked down, I get up again; you’re never going to keep me down.”
The Miraculous Mandarin, Opus 19 was written by Bartók from 1918-1924, and received its premiere in Cologne, Germany on November 27, 1926. Quickly banned there due to its risqué and violent story, the work since has gained increasing traction primarily as an orchestral work as opposed to its original incarnation as a ballet. The ballet’s scenario tells of three penniless tramps who force a girl, Mimi, to entice passing men from a window with seductive gestures and dancing. Planning to rob and kill the deluded men, they hide in the apartment. The first two men who are lured in are an old rake and a young boy, each as poor as the tramps. The third man, however, is a wealthy Chinese gentleman (the titular Mandarin) who is completely captivated by Mimi. Attempting to take her, he chases her about the room, whereupon he is set upon by the tramps, and is smothered. However, he miraculously springs back to life and continues his pursuit. The tramps try then to stab and hang him in turn, but he continues to revive, his body beginning to glow. Mimi suddenly recognizes what they must do and allows the Mandarin to embrace her; his last desire fulfilled, he finally dies.

If Bluebeard’s Castle reflected the influence of Richard Strauss, then Bartók’s music for The Miraculous Mandarin reflects his embrace of the music of Igor Stravinsky, the Russian modernist then infamous for his Rite of Spring. A high level of dissonance, rhythmic complexity, and quicksilver mood changes pervade the score, making for a highly exciting and unpredictable ballet. The excerpt below, taken from a November 19, 1970 archival recording conducted by Boulez, is of the end of the first dance of seduction, and the entrance of the Old Rake.

As mentioned above, the Orchestra has frequently performed the concert version of The Miraculous Mandarin since December 4, 1969. The ballet The Miraculous Mandarin was first performed by the Orchestra at Blossom Music Center on August 19 and 21, 1971 for a touring production by the Vienna State Opera Ballet (Heinz Lambrecht conducting). Our upcoming performance of this ballet is an exciting moment for the Orchestra in that it is an entirely new production, the result of the full collaboration of the Orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Möst with the celebrated Joffrey Ballet and innovative choreographer and director Yuri Possokhov.

The Cleveland Orchestra continues to embrace the music of Bartók, with next season promising his often-neglected Piano Concerto No. 1 and a work generally considered his magnum opus, the Concerto for Orchestra. His varied and evocative music will continue to thrive in Severance Hall and offer audiences now as it did over half-a-century ago the chance to experience a brave new world of orchestral color, harmony, and rhythm.

The Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, will perform a Bartók double bill April 7 through April 10. For The Miraculous Mandarin, Opus 19, they will be joined by the world-famous Joffrey Ballet, and for Bluebeard’s Castle by Katarina Dalayman playing the role of Judith and Mikhail Petrenko playing both Bluebeard and the Bard.

– Alex Lawler
Alex Lawler is an intern this season with The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.
He is a PhD student in Musicology at Case Western Reserve University.

All photographs and audio clips courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.

Want to know more?

Béla Bartók by David Cooper (2015)

Inside Bluebeard’s Castle – Music and Drama in Béla Bartók’s Opera by Carl S. Leafstedt (1999).

Bartók / Lutoslawski – Concertos for Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi conducting. Decca 1990.

Bartók ­– Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, The Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi conducting. Decca 1995.

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