Miraculous Mandarin

The Miraculous Mandarin

Of the three stage works, this one had the most turbulent history. The music was written to a story that previously appeared in a Hungarian periodical, written by Menyhért Lengyel (who became later recognized in the U.S.A. as the author of the Broadway play Blythe Spirit). The story became published in the magazine “Nyugat” in January, 1917, with the subtitle “Pantomime Grotesque”; thereafter it was offered to Béla Bartók to add music to it. The composer agreed and the completed score with stage action was first performed at Cologne on 27 November 1926. With one exception, it turned out also to be the last performance in Béla Bartók’s life and the only one he witnessed. The story was regarded offensive to the refined taste of the German public and further performances were forbidden. The prohibition was ordered by the then mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer (Chancellor of post World War II West Germany). One more performance took place in Prague, but otherwise the authorities of various countries, including Hungary, followed suit. A concert suite was prepared by the composer, comprising about half of the complete score, and marketed by the publisher Universal Edition. The composer lamented at the fate of “one of my best scores” yet written.

The story is centered around the attraction that can arise in man toward a woman, so powerful that it can defeat attempts at extinguishing life. Three tramps occupy a second story room in a big city on a busy street. A girl, apparently held captive by the three, is also found in that room. The tramps are short of funds and order the girl to lure passers-by from the street whom they could rob. The girl obliges and, in response to her inviting gestures at a window, men come up the stairs and enter the second floor room. The first one is a comic old man who has only love to offer but no money; the tramps dismiss him down the stair, throwing his top hat after him that is heard bouncing down the steps. The second victim is a schoolboy whom the girl seems to like and forgets her mission; this angers the tramps and the boy receives the same treatment as the old man did. The third victim arrives in the midst of a strange atmosphere. He radiates a mysterious force, the tramps hide and the girl is frightened. This person is a mandarin, obviously rich, he came responding to the girl’s charms and desires fulfillment. He just stands there, the girl does not know what to do, until the tramps gesticulate from their hiding placers: “Do something”.

The girl does so, she dances seductively in front of the mandarin, who then responds chasing her around the room. The tramps eventually appear, rob him of all his valuables, and then can not figure out how to get rid of him. They finally decide to kill him. First they place him on the bed, put pillows over him, one tramp even sits on top, all this trying to suffocate him. But the mandarin does not really die and, after some moments, sticks his head out from the pillows, looking at the girl. Then they stab the mandarin with an old rusty knife, three times to be sure, but he does not bleed, does not die and, though wounded, keeps staring at the frightened girl. The tramps then hang the mandarin by his long locks of hair from the chandelier at the ceiling. This does not work either; hanging from the ceiling the mandarin’s eyes are clearly fixed at the girl and emit a strange glow. Now the tramps are the ones frightened; but the girl has an idea and she takes charge: “Lower the mandarin”, she directs the tramps, who oblige.

The mandarin drops to the floor and promptly lunges toward the girl, who does not resist him this time. He embraces her. His desire fulfilled, the wounds begin to bleed; he soon collapses and dies.

Adenuer saved the world from an opportunity to see this work for a while. In Hungary there was an attempt at resurrecting the stage version and performing it on the occasion of Béla Bartók’s 50th birthday, drastically changing the story so as not to offend the censors’ sensitivity. The bed and pillows, too suggestive, were eliminated and the action moved outdoors. This made it necessary to discard the music while the mandarin, suffocating under the pillows, was thought to pass out. Other details received similar treatment; altogether, about thirty (not contiguous) bars of the music in all, were discarded. The censors attended a dress rehearsal — and forbade performance of the mutilated version.

After the end of World War II publisher Universal Edition, having recovered from the effects of the war, made an attempt at publishing the complete orchestra score with stage action. They must have considered dealing with Hungarians more expeditious than obtaining a copy of the manuscript from the trustee of Béla Bartók’s estate in New York, and the Hungarians had a copy; it was the copy in which thirty bars of the music were crossed out. Instead of parting with this, they had the whole score hand copied. The copyist saw portions of the music crossed out, so he did not copy those portions, and this neat new copy was sent to Universal Edition Vienna. This copy contained no sign to hint that anything had been eliminated, and Universal printed it, unaware of the absence of thirty vital bars of the music. They even asked the trustee of the composer’s estate for approval of a final proof; a signature was obtained, as no-one took the trouble to verify if all the music was included in the new, first edition of the complete score. This appeared in print with a 1955 copyright date and remained in circulation for 45 years, during which period the work was performed many times; always without the thirty bars of the music and the corresponding stage action.

The trust created by Béla Bartók’s Will terminated in 1985, the manuscripts became accessible, and the preparation of corrected editions could begin. It was about 1995 that this work reached the Miraculous Mandarin, eventually leading to the discovery of thirty bars missing from the printed score. The corrected score, this time completed with the restoration of the thirty bars, bears a 2000 copyright year.

One might think that potential performing organizations would be banging on the door wanting to present to the public for the first time the complete score of the Miraculous Mandarin. At first, when a performance did take place, criticisms were raised respecting “alterations” in the score. These were usually corrections; the performers, however, were so used to playing the score always with the same imperfections, that now the proper version sounded to them unfamiliar and wrong. Performing organizations requested the uncorrected version, arguing that they were already used to it and found it too much trouble to re-learn the work as written by its composer. One organization went to the extent of substituting rock-and-roll music for parts of that by Béla Bartók, and pornography in place of the stage action in the score, as written by Menyhért Lengyel. This was done insidiously, without even informing the publisher or the public of the departures from Béla Bartók’s and Menyhért Lengyel’s work. The Miraculous Mandarin earned the reputation: “I could not imagine that Béla Bartók wrote such a horrible work”. By the time the fraud was discovered, there was only one performance of a world tour left to cancel.

The worst offender was a motion picture film made in Hungary in 2000, just as the revised score was printed. In applying for a license, the film maker submitted the script for approval. The script showed that it was not what the music was written for, and approval was denied. The publisher nevertheless licensed the film in secret; it was only from newspaper reports that the production was learned about. A copy of the produced film showed that it was not the work of Béla Bartók and Menyhert Lengyel. The music was familiar, although it was the cut version, without the thirty bars left out in 1931, even though by then the complete revised score was available. The stage action was, however, a substitute that had little to do with the original work. The film was compared with the Bartók score (including stage directions), and it was found that the action on the film did not include a large portion of the action prescribed in the score, and it included numerous elements not in  the score.

It is beyond the scope of this report to present a blow by blow account of every departure or false detail, only a few examples follow. The film includes the capture of the girl by the tramps, that is not in the story at all, and shows the girl running on the bank of the river Danube on a nearly deserted, tranquil night. The music, on the other hand, represents the busy traffic of a city in the middle of the day, totally incongruous with what is on the screen. An older man shows his presumably naked body to the girl by opening his raincoat, a detail never included in the original story. The tramps deposit the girl in an automobile upside down, her bare legs up in the air, take her to their living quarters and, on arrival, inspect her private parts. All this is absent from the story written by Menyhért Lengyel; just as the following scene, when the girl is supposed to be at the window waving to passers-by, instead we see her lying on the bed with the tramps fondling her body. It is not made clear on the film in what way this act brought about the appearance of people from the street on the second floor; and there is no physical examination in Béla Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin.

Objections to the film were ridiculed. The filmmaker protested that their film followed the original script. The girl does a seductive dance scene, the dance is erotic, the action on the film is erotic, therefore they are one and the same. In Hungary, Peter Bartók was ridiculed for objecting to the film, adding that as he lived in Florida, his brain has been adversely affected by the sun. A Hungarian court of justice rejected a complaint regarding the departure of the film from what the authors wrote. It is not known what the court’s rationale was, but it may be added that the license issued by the publisher was worded in such a way that it allowed the recording of the music of the Miraculous Mandarin on the sound track of a film depicting action not necessarily found in the stage directions of the score.

A complete circle was travelled. A work that was first declared unfit for the public’s eyes, because it showed a man and woman embracing each other, now could not be shown as written because it is now regarded not erotic enough. This fiasco may be one hint at the general disagreement with Béla Bartók that lurks in Hungary under the seeming appreciation of his ideas.

It is encouraging that, despite its adverse history, the work could also be  properly performed. A small organization with limited facilities produced the work faithfully, paying attention to details such as the moments when the mandarin receives the three stabs of the knife. These occur to corresponding music where they are marked in the score, proudly mentioned in the program. Those marks were missing from the score as first printed, together with the music notation and the rest of the thirty omitted bars.

A more detailed history of this work can be found in the book “Béla Bartók – Menyhért Lengyel: The Miraculous Mandarin, with an essay by Ferenc Bónis (BR 503; see: “Books”).


Homosassa, 1 September 2010