Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd = E-flat clarinet, 3rd = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd and 2nd = contrabassoon), 4 horns (2nd and 4th = tenor Wagner tubas), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, large snare drum, soprano snare drum, tam tam, triangle, xylophone), harp, piano, celesta, organ, strings, and chorus. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 13, 1975, with members of the Roger Wagner Chorale, Pierre Boulez conducting.
Menyhért Lengyel’s story A csodálatos mandarin (“The Miraculous Mandarin”), a “pantomime grotesque,” as he called it, was published in a Hungarian literary magazine in 1917. Some months after its appearance, a Budapest newspaper wrote, “A composer of great European fame, who is reluctant to shed his incognito, is setting it to music.” No one could have claimed “great European fame” for Bartók at the time. The likelihood is that the composer being coyly suggested was Ernö Dohnányi, whose widow – many years after the fact – wrote: “[Dohnányi] could not undertake to set it to music. First, he had two of his operas to finish. Second, and this was the main reason, he thought the theme of grand guignol better suited to Bartók’s style.”
Dohnányi’s involvement with, or even knowledge of, the Mandarin tale, may have been a press fabrication (it happened even then). As Lengyel recorded in his memoirs: “I wrote this pantomime story in 1916, without any express purpose, and it appeared in the New Year’s Day  edition of Nyugat [“West”].” As it turned out, Bartók read the story, immediately wrote some music reflecting its content and played it for Lengyel, who was thrilled. The two, who had not met before, became collaborators and fast friends.
In the summer of 1918, Bartók wrote to his wife: “It will be hellish music. The prelude before the curtain goes up will be very short and sound like pandemonium... the audience will be introduced to the [thieves’] den at the height of the hurly-burly of the metropolis.” Wartime exigencies, however, delayed the completion of the score until late in 1919, while the orchestration, frequently interrupted, wasn’t accomplished for another three years.
Mandarin had to wait until 1926 for its staged premiere, which took place not in Budapest (where it was finally staged in December of 1945, two months after the composer’s death) but in Cologne. The following is from a German music journal, reporting on said premiere:
“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 [only one performance was given]... Waves of moral outrage engulf the city...”
For an idea of what was being reacted to, read Bartók’s own précis:
“Just listen to how beautiful the story is. Three thugs force a beautiful young girl to seduce men and lure them into their den, where they will be robbed. The first turns out to be poor, the second likewise, but the third is a Chinese, a good catch, as it turns out. The girl entertains him with her dance. The Mandarin’s desire is aroused. His love flares up, but the girl recoils from him. The thugs attack the Mandarin, rob him, smother him with pillows, stab him with a sword, all in vain, because the Mandarin continues watching the girl with eyes full of yearning... the girl complies with the Mandarin’s wish [i.e., for sexual consummation] whereupon he drops dead.”
Bartók’s music is of a savagery that he never again approached. As the Hungarian musicologist József Ujfalussy observed in his biography of the composer: “European art began to be populated by inhuman horrors and apocalyptic monsters. These were the creations of a world in which man’s imagination had been affected by political crises, wars, and the threat to life in all its forms... This exposure of latent horror and hidden danger and crime, together with an attempt to portray these evils in all their magnitude, was an expression of protest by 20th-century artists against the... obsolete ideals and inhumanity of contemporary civilization. [Bartók] does not see the Mandarin as a grotesque monster, but rather as the personification of a primitive, barbaric force, an example of the ‘natural man’ to whom he was so strongly attracted.”
The music makes its effect through rhythmic force and spectacular orchestration, which is hardly restricted to the shattering climaxes. The work is equally impressive for its eerily delicate colors, such as those associated with the girl’s dance of seduction – superbly evocative passages for the solo clarinet – and the Mandarin’s quiet, almost numbed reaction to her writhings, in the form of keyboard (piano and celesta) arabesques, harp glissandos, and the ghostly tinkling of the triangle. And a stunning effect of which one is cheated when hearing only the suite: after the third of the robbers’ three attempts at killing the Mandarin, his still unquiet body glows with a ghastly greenish-blue light, to the accompaniment of the otherworldly sounds of a wordless chorus. The Mandarin clearly cannot die until he is “fulfilled” (i.e., achieves orgasm), his wounds begin to bleed, and he expires, to the orchestra’s chilling bumps and shudders. A Liebestod not unrelated to that of Isolde in Wagner’s opera, but with a decidedly 20th-century attitude.
Herbert Glass, a columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times from 1971 through 1996, is also a frequent contributor to Gramophone and The Strad. He is English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival.