Dramatic Vocalise Database

Béla Bartók (1881–1945)

The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19 (1918–19, orchd 1924, rev. 1926–31)

Béla Bartók (1881–1945) spent August and September 1905 in Paris, where he participated in the Rubinstein competition both as composer and pianist. He returned to Paris in 1910 to perform several of his own works at a “Hungarian festival” concert on 12 March 1910. According to Malcolm Gillies, in Bartók’s works of 1910–12 French influences are at their most apparent, with Debussy’s influence in particular being perhaps too readily noticeable. Gillies cites as examples the Two Pictures, op. 10 (1910) for orchestra, the opera Bluebeard’s Castle (1911), and the Four Orchestral Pieces, op. 12 (1912).1

Contradicting Gillies’ opinion is an essay from 1911 written by Bartók regarding the Viennese premiere of Delius’s Messe des Lebens, in which Bartók claims that it was Delius who used chorus without text for the first time, which suggests that he was not acquainted with Debussy’s Nocturnes.

Bartók continues:
Bartók was willing to credit Delius, his fellow countryman Kodály, the French composer André Caplet, and yet not Debussy. Interestingly, however, the following passage from the same essay is similar to a passage in one of Debussy’s own letters.



Whether inspired by Debussy or Delius, Bartók included dramatic vocalization in his pantomime A csodálatos mandarin (The Miraculous Mandarin), op. 19. He drafted the work in short score to a scenario by Menyhért Lengyel between October 1918 and May 1919, orchestrating it five years later. The work was finally given its first performance in Cologne in 1926, but was banned immediately on moral grounds and not staged again during Bartók’s lifetime. Although an orchestral suite consisting of almost the first two-thirds of the work quickly found a place in the orchestral repertoire, full stagings have remained infrequent.

The problem was the supposedly sordid subject matter of Lengyl’s scenario: three ruffians force a young girl to lure men to her apartment with a view to robbing them. The third victim is a wealthy Chinese Mandarin who remains ice-cold and impassive until the girl’s dancing awakes his frenzied and destructive desire. As the girl shrinks from him in terror, the men try to kill him without success. In the end he dies only when the girl shows him pity.

It is during the last of the threefold attempts to kill the Mandarin—mirroring the three encounters with the potential victims—that Bartók includes hidden wordless chorus (SATB). When the ruffians attempt to hang the Mandarin from a light cord:

At this moment the chorus enters singing the vowel “O” for nine measures, then an additional ten measures on the vowel “A” (see Example).

Bartók, A csodálatos mandarin

According to Ferenc Bónis, “The minor third motif, sung by an invisible choir, wailing and without words, erupts from the depth of his soul as an expression of infinite suffering and a desire impossible to quell.” 7 This short passage, and the only one in the pantomime that includes chorus, is intended to enhance the impact of this supernatural occurrence, to magnify its otherworldly effect.

(Nauman 2009, 215–20)





1 Malcolm Gillies, “Bartók, Béla,” in Grove Music Online, ed. Laura Macy, http://www .grovemusic.com (accessed 3 January 2007).

2 Béla Bartók, Essays, ed. Benjamin Suchoff (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976), 449–50.

3 Ibid., 450.

4 Ibid.

5 François Lesure and Roger Nichols, eds., Debussy Letters, trans. by Roger Nichols (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 24.

6 Béla Bartók, Der Wunderbare Mandarin, op. 19 (Vienna and London: Universal Edition, 2000), 182.

7 Ferenc Bónis, “‘The Miraculous Mandarin’: The Birth and Vicissitudes of a Masterpiece,” in The Stage Works of Béla Bartók (London: John Calder; New York: Riverrun, 1991), 93.