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Length: 48 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th = piccolo), 4 oboes (3rd and 4th = English horn), 4 clarinets (3rd = E-flat clarinet, 4th = bass clarinet), alto saxophone, tenor saxophone (= baritone saxophone), 4 bassoons (3rd and 4th = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets, cymbals, glockenspiel, piccolo snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 6, 1987, Pierre Boulez conducting
Rejected because of poor health by the Austro-Hungarian army at the start of hostilities in 1914, Bartók remained productive throughout World War I. Although deeply depressed over the impoverished, disorganized state in which the conflict and its runup had left Hungary, the composer still managed to create several works of stature, including his grandiose ballet score, The Wooden Prince.
The Wooden Prince originated in 1912 as a contribution to the literary magazine Nyugat (West) by Béla Balázs, who had served as librettist for Bartók's opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Bartók found the fairy tale eminently suitable for setting as a dance piece. It proved to be his most ambitious attempt at reconciling the late-Romantic style, say of Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra, with which Bartók had become intoxicated while still a student, with the folk music that had been his major preoccupation since the early years of the century.
Both Bartók, the shy composer, and the tirelessly self-promoting Balázs, who regarded himself as its "director," were intimately involved in the Wooden Prince rehearsals. "May 12  was the first night of the ballet," Balázs recalled in his memoirs, "and an unprecedented success at the [Budapest Opera House]. They called me back at least 30 times… The next day the papers gave Bartók full recognition, but me mostly abuse… Yet in the days before the opening it was rumored that the libretto would be successful, but not the music… That it happened the other way around might have pleased me if they had at least acknowledged… what I did for Bartók: that I broke his symphonic music down for the stage, since it is devoid of all stage timing and spacing (I, who am not a musician, and not a director!), that I drilled music which musicians do not understand into house-porters' daughters, that I got it across that every movement corresponded to a phrase of the music [note that Balázs avoids mention of a choreographer's presence]… That I held 40 rehearsals [the conductor, Egisto Tango, said there were 30]… all in vain. The libretto - which naturally was in existence first - is a playful, lightly grotesque china knick-knack; the music to it is grave, tragic, and demoniac… The critics write that the reason I 'terrorized' Bartók into setting my text was that in this way I hoped to share in his success, to secure myself a place 'in the history of music.' I am afraid that these attacks will influence Bartók, whose literary judgment… is hardly impeccable… Yet it is important that nothing disturbs his success (mine will come from some other source), and it is enough for me to know that it was produced in part by my work."
In fact, Bartók and Balázs remained friends until after the premiere of Bluebeard a year later, at which time the writer's support of the short-lived Hungarian Communist Republic of Béla Kun in 1919 resulted in his being exiled by the subsequent right-wing government, an exile that would last until 1945.
The plot of The Wooden Prince is as follows: At the radiant climax of the "dawn" Prelude, the Princess descends from her miniature castle to play and dance (to a fetching clarinet solo) in the woods and by the streams. The gate of a neighboring miniature castle opens and the Prince sets out to see the world. The Forest Fairy orders the Princess back into the castle, but before she is able to obey, the Prince spots her and is summarily smitten. But the Fairy causes the forest to darken, preventing the Prince's pursuit. Then his progress is halted by a brook which has been caused to overflow its banks by the Fairy's magic: a delicious episode in which the waves, "danced" by the corps, are accompanied by harps, celesta, and winds. The waters recede to the mellow tones of a pair of saxophones. At this point, the Prince takes his carved wooden staff and sets on it his crown, mantle, and a lock of his golden hair. The Princess sees the puppet and is lovestruck, ignoring the Prince. The "wooden prince" becomes animated and she dances with it, to a galumphing accompaniment of four horns and an insistent xylophone.
The Prince, heartbroken, is crowned King of the Forest by the now sympathetic Fairy. The Princess returns with the puppet, whose spring (or whatever animates it) has run down. It is now a discarded plaything. She spies the Prince and approves; but he, still deeply hurt, turns away. Sad, she discards her royal trappings and cuts off her lovely hair. The Prince, deeply moved, rushes to her side, and they depart to live happily (or otherwise) ever after.
The musical theme of the Prince and the puppet are two sides of the same coin, the Prince's version lyrical, the puppet's, employing virtually the same notes, twisted and grotesque. The Princess - and her music - is by turns kittenish, haughty, and cruel until her final, post-puppet capitulation: women tend not to get the best of the bargain in Bartók's dramatic works; whereas the Prince is all understanding and forgiveness. Note the melody that wells up at the moment of the couple's coming together: it is the glorious folk-song "Fly, Peacock"that Bartók had used so effectively in his First String Quartet and that Zoltán Kodály would later send out into the world via his celebrated Peacock Variations.
-- Herbert Glass, a former critic-columnist for the Los Angeles Times, is English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival. He contributes to numerous periodicals in the U.S. and Europe.