Stage Works

Stage Works

Béla Bartók’s Stage Works

The fate of Béla Bartók’s stage works was marred by numerous unfortunate circumstances, leading to an outcome that prompted music historian Halsey Stevens to conclude, as Bartók’s other compositions fared better: “The theater’s loss is the great gain of the concert hall”. Since 1953, when this conclusion was made, the theatrical works have been vindicated, but not without considerable difficulties not created by the works themselves.

The first stage work, the opera Bluebeard’s Castle, was composed in 1911 with the intent that the score be submitted to a competition, the deadline for its submission looming on the uncomfortably close horizon. The first sketches of the work were produced while the composer was traveling, in the short time of a few months; it was hastily copied by the first Mrs. Bartók, Márta Ziegler, in Budapest, returned to the composer in Paris, who took it with him to Zermatt, Switzerland where he began the orchestrating. While doing this, he made alterations in the first sketch or its copy, whichever was at hand, but not in both. The orchestra score was completed just in time for submission and it received no award; according to one report, it was held “unperformable”. No-one touched the score with the intent of performing it until 1918, after the second Bartók stage work, The Wooden Prince, was performed in Budapest by conductor Egisto Tango. Its success led Maestro Tango to put on his program and introduce to the public Bluebeard’s Castle.

A revised version, now available, is the product of extensive examination of the source materials. These contained inconsistencies, explainable by the prevailing circumstances when the work was written; that is, the composer did not always have all the written versions at hand while working on and finalizing the orchestration. The text was newly translated into English, with particular attention to the Bard’s Prologue, that is a vital element in establishing the symbolic meaning of the story. At certain places the contrabass line was adjusted so as to include tones below E: in the original sketch these did appear but, presumably as instruments able to play them were rare when the work was written, the composer made compromise octave changes. As many instruments today have the mechanism for producing the lower tones, the contrabass line is now restored to the way it was originally written. All modifications, resolution of ambiguities and other adjustments, are explained in the published notes.

Both works were based on librettos by Béla Balázs, an author whose political views resulted in disfavor by the authorities. As Béla Bartók refused to agree that the librettist’s name not appear on programs, the works could not be performed for years. These circumstances changed so there could be performances of the work in Béla Bartók’s life.

The composer apparently had second thoughts about the score of The Wooden Prince. In 1932, soon after it became permissible to perform the libretto by Béla Balázs, Béla Bartók made drastic revisions on the score. At many places short sections were marked to be deleted, mostly repetitions, so as to make the work more concise. He advised the publisher that the work was to be performed from then on only in this shortened version, as the shortenings “constituted an improvement”. Nevertheless, a few years later, in his own copy of the complete score where the cuts were marked, he wrote the word “marad” (remains) over a few of the suts. Until now the publisher never printed the abridged score,only prepared some copies of the first edition with the cut sections eliminated by the use of scissors or the pen. In 1977 a hybrid pocket score was printed, showing both original and abridged versions, tyhat is very difficult to read.

As of this writing, a complete abridged score is in preparation, newly engraved and with editorial treatment. In this score the music will appear with the cuts prescribed by Béla Bartók, except those cuts which the composer later decided not to make. The junctions after cuts were examined for continuity. It seems that the composer marked his cuts at first on a piano reduction and, when he prepared his list of directions, he overlooked some problems. Thus, where before a cut, a phrase began in two octaves by two woodwind instruments, and continued after the cut in one octave only, the missing second octave was editorially supplied. Similarly, where before a cut horns 1 and 2 play, where as after the cut horns 3 and 4 continue, suitable editorial adjustment was made.

About the same time when he gave instructions for the abridgement of the complete score, the composer also prepared a formula for a concert suite. This suite was to be made up from the abridged score, with transition sections added. As with the abridged score, the publisher did not print this suite, but prepared some copies using the previously printed full score. The suite under preparation now was editorially treated, to eliminate some problems at the joining of sections.

This is the third suite the composer made from this score and can be characterized as “large suite”. A small suite, the first of the three, was prepared for performance by Denijs Dille and is available from the publishers’ rental libraries as “Little Suite”; it has an ending specially composed by Béla Bartók. A second suite is known to have existed but the performing material seems lost. The last, large suite, has a characteristic of finality: the additional sections were written on transparent paper with India ink, as Béla Bartók used to write his final scores suitable for copying by a trans-illumination process. He brought the corresponding manuscript segments and instructions to the U.S.A., together with the manuscripts of many of his other works.

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The corrected study score, piano reductions of The Miraculous Mandarin (one for piano four hands, one for two hands for rehearsals only), are available now from the publishers (Universal Edition, except in the U.S.A. from Boosey & Hawkes, Inc. / Hal Leonard Corp.). The revised study score and vocal-piano score of Bluebeard’s Castle are available from the same publishers, as well as Bartók Records & Publications on line, also the study score of Suite from The Wooden Prince. The Wooden Prince, complete stage version, with the 1932 revisions and the corresponding piano reduction, are in preparation as of this writing. The orchestra performing material for all three stage works, with conductor’s scores, are in the publishers’ rental libraries: Boosey & Hawkes, Inc in the U.S.A., Universal Edition elsewhere.


Homosassa, September, 2008