29. Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin


The last several posts in May and June had an informal, pre-summer theme: We reviewed works by Delius and Debussy that had relationships with gardens, water, outdoor festivals and summer. With the estival (I had to check the spelling on that one.) material now covered, I decided to present weightier examples.

In this post we’ll examine some items of interest in Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, a ballet written after the end of World War I and first performed in 1926. The story involves three thugs who, in order to obtain some cash, force a girl to attract some unsuspecting man into their room so they can beat and rob him.

For those unfamiliar with the work or those expecting the soft, mellifluous sounds of a languid summer’s day, my apologies, but Afternoon of a Faun it’s not. Nevertheless, there are many innovative orchestration techniques used by the composer.

Traditional Orchestra Section Material

Except for the string section of an orchestra, composers and orchestrators historically had a tendency to think of the sections of the orchestra as monolithic. Listen to Example 29.1, a brief passage from the second theme in the first movement of Schubert’s Symphony Number 9 in C, the “Great” C Major Symphony.

Example 29.1. Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C (Measures 133-143)
Charles Mackerras, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Veritas

Note how the oboes and bassoons are playing the same lines, just an octave apart. The first and second parts of each section are homorhythmic. The Schubert Ninth Symphony was composed nearly a century before The Miraculous Mandarin. As such, the composer takes the traditional approach to his sectional writing.

There are some other interesting morsels that should be noted. I’ve circled them in Example 29.1. As stated, this is the beginning of the second theme in the first movement and as is typical for the form, it’s a contrast to the first theme and its material that contains a great deal of triple meter influences.

Schubert includes quarter note triplets on the downbeats of measures 136, 137 and 138. What he does that shows his often-understated playfulness is the (unaccompanied) contrabass line that has its quarter note triplet on the second half of measure 138 followed by five quarter notes reminiscent of the theme itself. Then, just a couple of measures later when the harmony moves from V7 (B dominant seven) back to i (E minor) in this E minor passage, the cellos have the four eighth notes of the descending E minor scale, returning to the E in measure 142. It’s minor, but interesting and fun material that Schubert gives his more involved listeners.

On a side note, these are the kinds of things that make music more compelling for the non-violin sections of the orchestra (i.e., those that don’t have melodic or lead lines too often). For those new to orchestrating it never hurts to remember to include such parts for these musicians. A player that enjoys his or her part will perform with a bit more involvement especially in amateur settings.

Breaking Apart Sectional Thinking

Some composers since Schubert have found ways to exploit the sounds produced by parts of sections by combining them individually or with other sections. These relatively rare sounds can then be added to the composer’s tool kit.

Given the often similar sounds produced by the same instrument it is not an easy undertaking. But with study and a trained ear, the nuances of performance and the special sounds an instrument produces in certain ranges or when played a specific way can be used to color an orchestra sound.

There are a number of places in Béla Bartók’s ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, where this technique is used to a functional effect.

Germinal Ideas

Before reviewing the unique aspects of the divided sections, take a brief look at the overall intent of this opening. Bartók is providing the soundscape of a busy – and possibly sinister – city. The violins begin playing an ascending G-major scale, but it’s extended to the augmented octave before descending back down the octave to the tonic. This pattern continues for thirty-four measures, which, if it’s conducted at Bartók’s indicated metronome marking is about thirty-four seconds. The pattern provides an energetic beginning to the work. The dissonance gives the audience a hint at the intensity – and possibly the violence – to come.

In measure three, look at a dramatic way Bartók introduces us to the orchestra. The composer uses the third bassoon to play the only sustained sound in the orchestra. This is not an obvious choice. To add to the unique sounds produced in these opening measures, a piano is employed to provide a tremolo in the one-line and two-line octave ranges. These notes are duplicated by the eighth notes played by the other upper woodwinds.

It’s notable that Bartók brings in the other bassoons when the accented chords are played. This is the first example of a section, the bassoons in this case, dividing labor into two distinct roles.

Example 29.2. Béla Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin (Measures 1-13)
Claudio Abbado, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon

A few measures later the third trombone plays the dual role of “sustain-er” and “accent-er.” It’s what occurs at measure 24 that actually duplicates the roles of the bassoons earlier. The first trumpet (playing open) reproduces the equivalent effect that the third trombone had previously. But, the muted second and third trumpets enter with their eighth notes and continue the roles previously assigned only to the woodwinds. Listen to Example 29.3.

Example 29.3. Béla Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin (Measures 24-32)
Claudio Abbado, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon

Beginning at measure 49 the trombone section introduces new ideas and again is divided into two sections. Remember that trombones have the ability to play more loudly than most other wind instruments. Hence, when the first and second players enter with their glissandos marked to enter mezzo-forte and then to gliss. up to fortissimo. This division of labor with the third sustaining tones and the first and second playing the melody (with glissandos) continues for ten or more measures. This can be heard in Example 29.4.

The practice of having the first and third parts playing together is more of a holdover from horn writing where the first and third horns are the “higher” horns and the second and fourth are the “lower” ones. In a contemporary orchestra this is unnecessary. All the players of the trombone section are used to playing in almost any range of the instrument.

Example 29.4. Béla Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin (Measures 49-61)
Claudio Abbado, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon

Bartók takes the concept of tossing the melody, in this case a unique melody, around the trombone section beginning at measure 175. (Example 29.5) He has the first and third trombones playing the glissandos with the melody moving from one to the other, while the second trombone is sustaining and playing lower figures. There are mechanical reasons for this division in the two upper trombones also because all the notes of a true glissando must be within the range of a partial. This means that when the slide is moved in or out, all the notes played must be within the range from position one to position seven. For those new to writing to trombone – as with any instrument – do your research and then try to discuss your intention with a player to get validation of the possibility.

Example 29.5. Béla Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin (Measures 175-182)
Claudio Abbado, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon

At the beginning of this passage see how the first and second trombones are playing and sustaining the third and the fifth of the C-sharp major triad with the tuba playing the root. And above the chord, the third trombone plays the B-sharp. One minor point for those who might be hesitant to have the third trombone jump from the low Great E octave eighth-note at the end of the previous bar to the that B-sharp. Not to worry. It’s not a problem for a trombonist to make such a leap.

There are a few other less obvious items of interest in this passage. Note that none of the sounds is coming from the strings and also the piano joins the woodwinds for the accents on the third and fourth (or just the third) beats of the first few measures. Also note the bass clarinet is used here simply to work with the English horn, bassoons, trombone and tuba to play harmonies in the lower part of the orchestral range.

Please let me know if you have questions.

Personal Note

As I noted in the previous post, summer has provided me with an excuse to post monthly. I plan to return to weekly posts in the fall. Thanks for your understanding.

Matthew Yasner


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