Bela Bartok: Powers in the Land

Bela BartokI didn’t intend to write a separate post about the composer of Bluebeard’s Castle, but WordPress has its limitations. Among them the impossibility of adding to a the bottom of a post once it has an image or a video on it.

This is just for those who might be interested to know A bit about Bartok and his influences. Since folk music, folk tales an fairy tales have had such a profound influence on my Magical progression, I find Bartok’s inspiration in Hungarian and Bulgarian folk music runs along the same lines.

Folk Music as Magical Inspiration

Why? Folk music comes from the deep primal layers of the soul. I believe this very early music was a gift from the spirits of the land, that the  rhythms and melodies express the energies of a particular place in its natural state. As industrialization takes over, the links between human and Faery are cut. Music itself becomes more industrial, divorced from the rays, currents, and tides that make magic possible. Bartok, in seeking to unlock the old folk songs of Central Europe, perhaps came into contact with these long exiled spirits. They came to hm and inspired his only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, about a souls in tormented isolation who seeks, through the mediation of his wives, to re-merge with the patterns and cycles of Nature.

For one with the Witchblood, this urge is so deep inside you, that one cannot help but identify with Bartok’s alienated Bluebeard, filled with the same longing to return to what once was before the ways and portals of Faery were broken by metal and machines.

Biography and Musical Influences

The piece below is just pulled form Wikipedia as I can’t say it any better. Look him up there for more details.

The native form of this personal name is Bartók Béla. This article uses the Western name order.

Béla Viktor János Bartók (Hungarian: IPA: [ˈbeːlɒ ˈbɒrtoːk]) (March 25, 1881–September 26, 1945) was a Hungarian composer and pianist, considered to be one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. Through his collection and analytical study of folk music, he was one of the founders of ethnomusicology.

In 1907, Bartók began teaching as a piano professor at the Royal Academy. This position freed him from touring Europe as a pianist and enabled him to stay in Hungary. Among his notable students were Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, György Sándor, Ernő Balogh, Lili Kraus, and, after Bartók moved to the United States, Jack Beeson and Violet Archer.

In 1908, inspired by both their own interest in folk music and by the contemporary resurgence of interest in traditional national culture, he and Kodály travelled into the countryside to collect and research old Magyar folk melodies. Their findings came as a surprise: Magyar folk music had previously been categorised as Gypsy music. The classic example of this misconception is Franz Liszt’s famous Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano, which were based on popular art-songs performed by Gypsy bands of the time. In contrast, the old Magyar folk melodies discovered by Bartók and Kodály bore little resemblance to the popular music performed by these Gypsy bands. Instead, they found that many of the folk-songs are based on pentatonic scales similar to those in Oriental folk traditions, such as those of Central Asia and Siberia.

Bartók and Kodály quickly set about incorporating elements of real Magyar peasant music into their compositions. Both Bartók and Kodály frequently quoted folk songs verbatim and wrote pieces derived entirely from authentic folk melodies. An example is his two volumes entitled For Children for solo piano containing 80 folk tunes to which he wrote accompaniment. Bartók’s style in his art music compositions was a synthesis of folk music, classicism, and modernism. His melodic and harmonic sense was profoundly influenced by the folk music of Hungary, Romania, and many other nations, and he was especially fond of the asymmetrical dance rhythms and pungent harmonies found in Bulgarian music. Most of his early compositions offer a blend of nationalist and late Romanticism elements.

Bluebeard’s Castle

Bartók wrote what was to be his only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, dedicated to his wife Márta. This suggests to me that he may indeed have identified more than  a little with the inner struggle of his protagonist.

He entered it for a prize awarded by the Hungarian Fine Arts Commission, which rejected it out of hand as un-stageworthy. In 1917 Bartók revised the score in preparation for the 1918 première, for which he rewrote the ending. Following the 1919 revolution, he was pressured by the government to remove the name of the blacklisted librettist Béla Balázs (by then a refugee in Vienna) from the opera.

Bluebeard’s Castle received only one revival, in 1936, before Bartók emigrated. For the remainder of his life, although he was passionately devoted to Hungary, its people and its culture, he never felt much loyalty to its government or its official establishments.

Personal Note: The Golden Stair

I was fascinated with Bartok’s use of Central European folk music in composing Bluebeard’s Castle, as well the Ottoman inspired staging of the 2004 production I found on UTube.

My unpublished (but hopefully not for long) novel The Golden Stair is based on Rapunzel but form the Point of view of the Witch. It is Grimm’s fairy tale, but I set in 15th century Royal Hungary at the height of the Ottoman wars. A battle with the Turkish invaders is the turning point of the book.

This is perhaps why I have been so thrilled with this opera. Not just because I love fairy tales, but because Bartok drew on the same current that motivated my own creative project.

Kay Nielsen, Bluebeard

Kay Nielsen, Bluebeard

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The Dark Side of Faery Tales: Bluebeard’s Castle

Faery Tales and the Subconscious Mind

The evocative images in Faery Tales have animated my subconscious imagination since early childhood. I have not just been influenced by the wish-fulfilling, romantic-expectation fantasy aspect of Fairy Tales that has been criticized as the bane of young women by some feminists. It is the dark, disturbing elements that move me. The numinous edge that is the threshold of the Otherworld stirs my blood and draws me in.
Why should that be? After spending many years pondering this issue, I have come to believe that what is consigned (by society) to the dark is Taboo, and Taboos invite curiosity. That which is dark and hidden, especially forbidden, seethes with danger. Why would one be drawn to investigate what is dangerous? To bring something to light, perhaps, and dissipate its fearful hold over you? Over society? Perhaps there is an innate desire to redeem that which has been misunderstood and cast out.

The darkness accumulates magnetic power because it has been left alone. We live in a world of duality where what has been ignored must seek reunion, recognition, integration.

The Mysterious Domain

There is an undercurrent of dark mystery in Faery Tales that is their source of supernatural wonder. These have been suspected, in Christian cultures, of being the matrix of evil forces that must be subdued. Much of this matrix has to do with nature and its power over of our lives. I always wonder what these tales were like before the churchmen got their hands on them. Were there always heroes  destroying the Big Bad Wolves and Evil Queens? Were the so-called villians always taught the error of their ways? Were  the Enchanters, and the Enchanted, always portrayed in a negative light by peasants telling stories beside the fire on cold winter nights? Perhaps this uneasy undercurrent has to do with fear of Faery and its unexpected intrusion into the mundane order of our lives.

La Belle et La Bette, Cocteau

Many of the dark, disturbing elements of Faery Tales often revolve around sexuality, whether it comes in bestial form, as the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, or the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, or in the machinations of the Dark Mother, the Wicked Witch, or Evil Sorceress who seeks to destroy the fledgling beauty before she wakes up to her womanhood.

Sometimes it is the displacement into another world that is disturbing. This brings up fear of the unknown, dread of what is unfamiliar, and the sense of trespass into a forbidden realm. These realms  may also have to do with sexuality, for they are beyond the pale, or outside the boundaries of civilized, acceptable society. There, sexual diversions of all kinds may encountered with beings who may not be like us, or are under some kind of enchantment.

Bluebeard, Dore

Bluebeard, Dore


The  story of Bluebeard includes all of these murky elements. Based on the life of the infamous Gilles de Rais, commander of Joan d’Arc’s army, and  aristocratic murderer of young boys, Bluebeard is not really a fairy tale. It was not collected by the Grimm Brothers, was never a folktale, but a work of literature. Why is it part of the Fairy Tale cannon then? Is it because of its chilling undercurrent, its remote, haunted realm, and the equally haunted soul of Bluebeard with his chilling secret chamber that deeply disturbs us and draws us in? Are we not like the Bride, on fire with curiosity to peer into the dark places that are not meant to be seen?

The inclusion of a story as horrific as Bluebeard among the classic Fairy Tales proves that what pulls us into these stories again and again is our desire, like the questing heroes of old, to penetrate the darkest mysteries and come return with a shimmering gift.

In the original Tale of Bluebeard by Perrault, a young girl is married to an extraordinarily wealthy, worldly man who sports a beastial blue beard. He carries her off to his remote chateau beside the sea. The castle is filled with luxuries, but is empty and cold, filling the young Bride with doubt about  her future happiness with her husband. Very soon, Bluebeard announces that must go away on business, and leaves her in charge of large ring of keys.
“Go into any room you want,” he tells her. “Explore your new home to your heart’s content, but under no circumstances use this little golden key.”
He dangles it in front of her, and then goes on to tell her exactly which door it fits, and where it is.
Naturally, while he is away, the bored and wondering Bride, locates the door. Unable to resist, she slips the key into the lock. It turns! It is only one small step over the threshold and —–
We know what she finds. All the dead bodies of Bluebeard’s previous wives.

Bluebeard, Matt Mahurin

Bluebeard, Matt Mahurin

Bluebeard’s Castle: An Opera by Bela Bartok, 1911

As a lover of Faery tales, I was extremely fortunate to see Robert Lepage’s production of Bluebeard’s Castle at Seattle Opera recently. Known for his work with Cirque du Soleil, he originally directed this piece for the Canadian Opera Company. In Seattle the director’s post was taken over by Francois Racine.
Bluebeard was played by John Relyea with great pathos and magnificent voice.
The Bride, Judit, was played by Malgorzata Walewska. Her voice was gorgeous and her acting sensitive.
I am no critic of classical singing. I loved them both. I am interested in the story and the images that stir the imagination and lie there seeding…

The stage is framed with golden tiles reminiscent of the art of Gustave Klimt. This sets up the idea of the stage as a living painting. Bartok was influenced by the French Symbolists. Knowing that helps one to appreciate the slow pace, and absorb the poetic images as one would a work of visual art.
Otherwise the stage is dark but for a castle, far away, golden, and revolving in the murk as in a dream. Here is the enticement to enter a realm that is dark, magnetic, alluring, inviting penetration of its mystery.
So does Bluebeard.
The one act opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, departs from Perrault’s storyline to give us a psychological encounter with the lure of darkness. The Bride, Judit, comes into her new home, the gloomy Castle, stunned but determined to adjust. She loves Bluebeard, pities his deep loneliness, and unrelenting sadness.
At last, unable to cope with the brooding melancholy of the place, Judit fixates on a row of large keyholes along the wall through the light is shining through. Hopeing for her happily-ever-after, she decides that  if only this light could be let in, Bluebeard’s depression would be releived, and their love would bloom.

Tormented by doubt that she will not be able to accept what she finds behind the doors, Bluebeard struggles with Judit to keep the doors closed. She persists, determined to heal her beloved’s darkness. One by one she opens the locks, and one by one, the doors open to let in streams of dazzling light.
But, once her eyes adjust to the light, Judit find to her dismay that the first door opens on a torture chamber, awash with blood.  The second door reveals Bluebeard’s armory, also drenched with blood. Undaunted like a true fairy tale heroine, Judit continues opening the doors while Bluebeard cringes at her discoveries, hating himself. and fearing the loss of her love.
At the third door, Judit rallies for it  holds a mountain of sparkling jewels! But these too are soaked with blood. The fourth door opens on a garden — golden leaves float out and land gently surround the Bride who is overjoyed to find this evidence of beauty in Bluebeard’s soul. Her reverie comes to stop when  she notices  the hem of her skirts are saturated with blood that has run out of the garden to pool at her feet. The fifth door opens on a vista of conquered lands. Bluebeard, certian she will impressed, brags about his empire. But his joy is shortlived, for the clouds above those lands are roiling with blood.

The climax is a wonder! When Judit opens the sixth door, a river runs out and crosses the front of the stage. She walks in the water, wondering how it got there. Bluebeard tells her it is a Lake of Tears. He breaks down, defeated, for she has in getting so close to discovering his true dark secret. Like everything else, the Lake of Tears turns to blood.

When Judit opens the final door, we see the first wife rising out of the lake. When she stands up, she is clothed from head to foot in brilliant red. He wet gown clings, drags and drips like fresh blood. Slow as a sleepwalker, she moves across the Lake of Blood and Tears, followed by the second blood soaked wife, and then a third. They leave the lake and move upstag,e to stand in three corners while Bluebeard sings about their fates. The first wife is the Dawn, the second is the Day, and the third is Twilight. All his life, Bluebeard has been waiting for the most beautiful wife, Judit, who from now on will be the Night.

Bluebeard's Castle

As the scene fades we see the far away Castle turning in the dark,  as in a dream. Judit could not bring the light, but rather became one with the unremitting Night. Bluebeard is left alone. His inner darkness comes down like a curtain,

The images are profoundly poetic and hypnotic. The light flooding into the shadowy castle hall with its strong bars across the exit, undulated with vivid colors suggesting what the audience could not see behind the doors. Lurid reflections moved over the opposite wall as the light struck it and told the whole story.

This was so beautiful it had me coming out in a rash! Sorry, but I get that way sometimes.

Insider aside: The actresses actually swam onto the stage through a tank of water. When they stood up these marvelous soaking wet, scarlet costumes dragged behind them and clung like fresh blood.

The wetness of Judit’s wedding gown was as expressive as anything else on the stage. Surreal, romantic, claustrophobic and Kafka-esque, I hope I never forget it.

I am not a music critic, so for those who would like to know I have quoted a review by David Stabler of the Oregonian newspaper:

The score is rich in Debussian declamation and surging Straussian color. It packs a wallop that is almost physical, without one sustained aria. The orchestral motif associated with dripping blood is a minor second, a crimped interval of anguish, but Bartok uses it many ways, building the taut score to a climax of overwhelming power before sinking back into gloom.

Door No. 5 is the climax, a searing orgasm in C Major that draws a drawn-out scream from Judith, who stands in a radiance of white light as the orchestra bucks beneath her. Polish mezzo Malgorzata Walewska was magnificent throughout – alluring, supple in voice and limb — but that moment belongs to the orchestra in all its hammering glory.

Just as magnificent was John Relyea’s Bluebeard, a demon with a sympathetic heart and a sonorous bass that contained rage and despair, seemingly pulled from the depths of the earth. His singing was emotionally expansive, at times thundering, consoling and traumatized.

Arthur Woodley animated the spoken Prologue with a storyteller’s expressive power.

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