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  • Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 28: The Miraculous Mandarin

My final post for October is a dark, supernatural, one-sided love story (it’s really infatuation more than true love)—it’s Bela Bartok’s suite from The Miraculous Mandarin. I first came across this piece when I was an undergraduate student in North Carolina; then, as a doctoral student at Indiana, I had the great privilege of preparing it for Maestro Franz Welser-Most, the Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra.


Bela Bartok was a Hungarian composer, whose career mostly covers the first half of the 20th century. Without question, his most frequently performed orchestral work is the 1943 Concerto for Orchestra. The Miraculous Mandarin is, technically speaking, not a purely orchestral work; rather, it’s a pantomime ballet (with chorus!) that Bartok worked on for a period of about six years, from 1918 to 1924. The suite, however, is essentially just the first two-thirds of the ballet, performed by orchestra alone.


The suite begins with the raucous noise of the big city. Three tramps are searching a room and their own pockets for money, but there is none. Hoping to lure unsuspecting men to the room, they force a girl to perform seductive dances in the window. These are the three “decoy games.” The first two men to visit and dance with the girl also have no money, so they are attacked and thrown out by the tramps. Then, at the start of the third dance, the tramps and girl notice a strange figure in the street, soon heard coming toward the room—it’s the wealthy, but bizarre Mandarin. Despite his unnerving behavior, the tramps press the girl to seduce him. The Mandarin leaps at the girl and embraces her, but she fights him off; then, he chases her around the room. This is the aptly named “chase fugue.” The tramps attack, rob, and attempt to murder the Mandarin, but he continues to stare eerily at the girl…so they stab him! He still does not fall, but lunges at the girl once more. Terrified and desperate, the tramps hang the Mandarin from a lamp hook, but the hook breaks and the room is plunged into darkness. The Mandarin’s body begins to glow, and the girl realizes what must be done…. She tells the tramps to release him, at which point he lunges at her one last time. They embrace; and, his longing fulfilled, the Mandarin’s wounds begin to bleed and he dies.


Pretty dark, right? Now check out this incredible live recording by the New York Philharmonic and David Robertson. Happy Halloween, friends! :)




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