Cantata Profana

The nine enchanted stags

In Béla Bartók’s large collection of Roumanian folk music, a substantial number of songs are identified as Colinde, or Christmas Carols. Among these are two ballads with related texts that inspired him to create a work for tenor and baritone soli, double chorus and orchestra. He made use of only the Roumanian texts, the story, not of the Roumanian melodies.

It is a simple story: A father, hunter by occupation, taught his sons nothing but to be hunters of stags. One day all the nine sons went off together to roam the forest, where they found a nice bridge and the tracks of “wondrous stags”. They followed the tracks and, miraculously, turned into stags themselves.

When their father became anxious, waiting in vain for his sons to return home, he went off looking for them in the forest, taking his rifle with him as usual. He happened to come to the bridge but, instead of his sons, he saw nine young stags together. As a matter of habit, he kneeled down and took aim at the largest stag (his favorite son), who surprised him by speaking – telling him that they were his nine sons, and that he should not shoot at them, since they would use their antlers to defend themselves, and the old man would not have a chance. The father then pleaded with his sons to return home with him, where their mother was waiting for them with dinner ready and wine glasses filled. But the son explained that they could no longer return to live as men, as they were destined to remain stags forever; to roam nature’s paths in the forest, to step only on the soft carpeting of fallen leaves and to drink only from pure mountain springs.

It is more than coincidence that this tale caught the interest of Béla Bartók – a man of impeccable integrity, who himself spent a great deal of his life in the woods and on mountains, where he was at home with nature, avoiding civilization’s filth and insincerity. There is no question on which side he stood, in the struggle between hunter man and his victims, who never did the hunter any harm, but who sought to pursue their lives in the freedom of nature. From Béla Bartók’s folk music collections, music teaching, and compositions, the world received only sincere gifts from a pure source.

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Publication of this work was accompanied by more than its fair share of difficulties. The Hungarian text was first assigned to a professional poet. He produced it in his own style but, in the end, Béla Bartók’s own poetry took its place in the final work. When the first edition was printed, the text was in German and English, omitting the beautiful details of Béla Bartók’s Hungarian version. The present edition is the first one to show the Hungarian text as well as an English translation by Robert Shaw.

Particularly troublesome are the English versions of the title. Even if the translator had been insufficiently familiar with the Hungarian language, the German version provided by Béla Bartók could have served as a guide. Both the Hungarian “csodaszarvas” as well as the German “Zauberhirsche” refer to them as “miraculous”. The stags were not born as such animals but as male humans. Only at the intervention of nature did they turn into the four legged animal by a process that deserves the claim “miraculous”, or “enchanted”. Miraculous, rather than giant, are these stags.The animal itself, “Szarvas”, the word literally meaning “one with antlers”, can only be the male version of the deer family; the German Hirsch likewise, with “stag” the equivalent. None of them contain or imply any reference to size. Yet the giant adjective of the first English edition survived.

This tale carries the implication of irreversibility. Here Nature steps in and does not allow the continuation of a process whereby innocent beings, the sons, are trained to concentrate on the annihilation of other innocent beings. The Law of Nature takes over and puts an end to the process. Just as the effect of the hunter’s bullet is final, so is the judgment of Nature; the sons, young stags, can never turn back into humans, never enter houses, never eat or drink as humans; they will only live following Nature.

The Cantata Profana is available as a study score and vocal-piano reduction. They may be purchased at retail establishments handling such products of the publishers mentioned below, as well as from the website of Bartók Records and Publications. Orchestra and choral parts for performances should be rented from the publishers: Boosey & Hawkes Inc. in the U.S.A., Universal Edition elsewhere. More can be learned on “”/sheet music; or ” “. One of the first commercial records of the Cantata Profana is on this website, with Richard Lewis, tenor; Marko Rothmüller, baritone; Walter Susskind conducts the New Symphony Orchestra of London/cd and long playing records, the recording made in 1953. On both CD and LP records.