Pieces

Béla Bartók - Bluebeard's Castle
Program Notes

BÉLA BARTÓK (1881-1945)

BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE (A kékszakállú herceg vára)
Opera in One Act; libretto by Béla Balász

Composed: 1911-1917
Premiered: Budapest, Hungary, 1918

In what may be one of the strangest spousal gifts of all time, Béla Bartók dedicated Bluebeard’s Castle to his wife, Márta. After that, it is hardly surprising that he later unceremoniously ditched Márta and married one of his students. Elsa, in Wagner’s Lohengrin, causes grief and death if she asks her new husband what his name is; poor Judith, the new Mrs. Bluebeard, ends up incarcerated with her predecessors for asking him anything at all. Béla Balász originally wrote the libretto for Bartók’s friend Zoltán Kodály, who appears to have taken one look and fled. Bartók entered the piece for two competitions, and lost in both; in the case of the second, the judges didn’t even look at the music – the libretto was enough to damn the opera. The American premiere did not take place until 1949, five years after the composer’s lonely, unappreciated death in in New York. By then, he had more or less written it off. Fortunately, he was wrong.

At the start, Bluebeard and his new wife Judith have eloped and fled to Bluebeard’s ancestral castle, presumably deep in the Transylvania of Bartók’s youth. They enter a huge, dark hall, which has seven locked doors. Bluebeard begins their married life by asking if she wants to leave, and helpfully holds the door for her, but she says she wants to stay. And what are all those doors? They are private; she must ask no questions. But she persists; Bluebeard will open the doors one by one until she regrets asking any question in the first place.

Behind the first door is a torture chamber, dripping with blood. Ignoring both the view and the symbolism, Judith presses on. The second door reveals Bluebeard’s alarming weapons stash, again soaked in blood; the third is his treasure chamber, flecked with yet more blood. The fourth reveals a carefully-kept garden of exquisite – but red-flecked – flowers. The fifth, arguably the musical climax of the opera, opens to reveal a staggering vista of Bluebeard’s kingdom as stately major and minor triads suddenly replace the nervous semi-tonality of the rest of the opera. For once, the sun is allowed in, only to reveal the omnipresent blood, with dark red clouds approaching to supply more.

A more prudent operatic heroine would be having second thoughts by now, but Judith, as we would now say, wants it all. Next door, please. No blood, for once – but a lake, glinting in the half-light. A lake, says Bluebeard, of tears. Stop asking questions, he says. Just love me. Judith’s not entirely logical response is to accuse him of murdering his previous wives; the last door must conceal their tomb. In a sublime mixture of Expressionist symbolism and Agatha Christie Big Reveal, he hands her the key.

Behind the last door are Bluebeard’s previous three wives, all still alive, all festooned in jewelry and royal regalia. They are the wives of Sunrise, Noon, and Sunset. Bluebeard sings a verse in praise of each of them in term, then begins to praise Judith - the wife of Night. He gives Judith her share of jewelry and furs; the weight of it all crushes her spirit, and she joins the other three in a slow, moonlit procession through the last door, which closes behind her. Bluebeard is left behind in his dark hall. “It will now be night forever,” he sings, but the return of motifs from the opening of the opera at least faintly suggest that the process may be about to start again. Maybe elsewhere, in the universality of art; those who have visited London may even have heard a Cockney refer to his wife as “’er indoors.”

The music of Bluebeard contains unmistakable (if harsher) echoes of Debussy’s Pelléas, another piece whose symbolism may be concealing something too dire to contemplate. Bartók once called Debussy his friend – a rare and very two-edged compliment (both of Debussy’s wives attempted suicide). In this strange work, two very great composers meet to contemplate what seems to be their own abyss.

Pablo Sarasate - Zigeunerweisen
Program Notes

PABLO de SARASATE (1844-1908)

ZIGEUNERWEISEN (Gypsy Airs) , Op.20

Composed : 1878
Premiered : Leipzig, Germany, 1879

Much delightfully bogus scholarship has gone into proving that this was the work that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went to hear in the tale of The Red Headed League. Holmes, himself no mean violinist, declares himself an admirer of Sarasate – and if Sarasate could play this work as written (which he could!), it is not hard to see why.

The piece is in a single movement, but this is divided into clearly-defined sections. A dignified Moderato gives way to a gloomy lento whose melodic line is interspersed with increasingly frightening virtuoso bursts of (bogus) “improvised” fantasy. This in turn leads to an even slower section based on a real Gypsy melody with an oddly Scottish “snap” rhythm, before the final Allegro Molto breaks out in a virtuosic nightmare of multiple stops, simultaneous pizzicato and just about everything else that keeps violinists awake at night.

Dmitri Shostakovich - Cello Concerto No. 1, 4th movement
Program Notes

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

CELLO CONCERTO No. 1 in E-flat, Op. 107

COMPOSED: 1959
PREMIERED: Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia, 1959

IV: Allegro con moto

Written for the composer’s friend Mstislav Rostropovich, the first Cello Concerto uses the startling virtuosity of the solo part to conceal one of the composer’s little musical games. Two of the main themes of the last movement are the semi-folk tune Suliko and a motif based on the composer’s name – D-E flat-C-B, which in German nomenclature is D-S-C-H. Shostakovich parodied Suliko (one of Stalin’s favorite songs) in a secret work called The Little Antiformalistic Paradise, which was only performed in his house before carefully vetted audiences, including Rostropovich. It was a particularly pungent victory for Rostropovich to carry this work to international fame and success, complete with its hidden ideological mine. Suliko is twisted almost out of recognition, and D-S-C-H “wins”.

About the Concert

An incredible dramatic event! Robert Cantrell and Kyle Engler join the orchestra for a concert version of Bartok's 50-minute opera. Unlock the mysteries of Bluebeard's past in a ravishing score colored by the folk music of Bartok's native Hungary. Plus, the winners of our Young Artist Competition will dazzle you with their performances.

This concert is sponsored by John Steinberg and is part of Columbia's 50th Anniversary Celebration.