Analysis of ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’

The Miraculous Mandarin (A csodálatos mandarin in Hungarian; Der wunderbare Mandarin in German) is a pantomime/ballet composed for full orchestra by Béla Bartók from 1918 to 1924. It premiered in 1926 at the Cologne Opera, in Germany. The story is based on a libretto by Melchior Lengyel. The violence and sexuality of the story caused a scandal at its premiere.

What also would have caused distaste for the audience, whom I’d presume to have been mostly conservative in their musical tastes, was the extreme dissonance of the music. Indeed, Bartók’s toughest, most dissonant music was written in the 1920s, with such pieces as his third and fourth string quartets, his first piano concerto, Out of Doors for solo piano, and his second sonata for violin and piano. At times, this music would get so dissonant as to border on atonality.

Though he insisted that his music, while using all twelve semitones, was tonal (a reaction to Schoenberg‘s atonal use of all twelve semitones), Bartók essentially abandoned the major/minor system in favour of one based on axes of symmetry. These axes are at the intervals of the diminished seventh chord; this isn’t to say that he made constant use of that particular chord, but that he would do modulations and chord changes–and use such scales at the octatonic (and its alpha chord)–based on the minor third, the tritone, and the major sixth, pivot points, if you will, which are comparable to shifts from the major key to its relative minor, and vice versa.

These–at the time, unusual-sounding–melodic and harmonic experiments, as well as the extensive influence of the folk music of his native Hungary and neighbouring countries (around which he traveled much in his younger adulthood, recording and studying the music), gives Bartók’s music its unique sound.

A few YouTube videos of performances of The Miraculous Mandarin can be found here, here, and here. A video with the score, which includes written indications of developments in the plot of the story, can be found here. And here is a link to the concert suite, which removes about a third of the score, mostly the last twelve or thirteen minutes, which musically depicts the tramps’ robbing and attempting to kill the mandarin.

Bartók insisted it was a pantomime rather than a ballet, since the only dancing in the story is supposed to occur when the pretty girl–forced to lure male victims into the tramps’ den to be robbed–seductively dances with the victims (Gillies, page 373); nonetheless, performances tend to have everyone dancing throughout–see the links above, and a few brief excerpts of performances in links given below. The pantomime begins with the chaos of the city. The orchestra assaults our ears with dissonances.

The second violins play a flurry of quick ascending and descending sixteenth notes in septuplets of G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G#, up and down and up and down, the outer edges making a dissonant minor ninth. This up-and-down cycle I see as symbolic of the boom-and-bust economic cycle, a manifestation of the instability of the capitalist mode of production. Such economic uncertainty leads to an aggravation of crime, which in turn leads to the next issue.

A hectic rhythm in 6/8 time is heard with notes in minor seconds, a motif that will reappear whenever we encounter the violence of the tramps (also referred to sometimes as apaches or vagabonds), three male criminal thugs who find themselves without money and resolve to rob others, using a pretty girl to dance seductively and lure the victims in.

The brass section adds to the dissonance by imitating the honking of car horns. Flutes are now playing waves of shrill, quick chromatic notes in a manner similar to the opening second violin waves. The horns get much harsher. The violent tone of the pantomime has been established. We have in this music a vivid depiction of the neurotic, alienating, and violent modern urban world. The stage has been set for the entry of the three tramps. The curtain rises.

A tense theme is played on the violas (later taken over by the first violins) when we see the tramps; the first checks his pockets for money, and the second tramp checks the desk drawers of their den for money, of which they haven’t any. This lack of theirs gives rise to desire, which is one of the dominant themes of the pantomime, as we’ll see with the old rake, the shy young man, and especially the mandarin, when they behold the beauty of the dancing girl, who now appears on the stage.

The third tramp violently tells her to dance alluringly for any male passer-by, so they can sneak up on him and rob him. She refuses to, of course, but the tramps force her to all the same. Here we see how desire gives rise to suffering, just as lack gave rise to desire–the three go round and round in a cycle–for the tramps, lacking money and desiring it, are now exploiting her for the hopes of gain. Such exploitation is the essence of the relations between the owners of the means of production (the capitalists) and those who have only their labour to sell to survive (the proletariat).

Thus we see how the tramps, in spite of their momentary pennilessness, represent the bourgeoisie. Their den represents the land and means of production owned by the capitalist class. The girl, who can do nothing other than dance and arouse men’s lust, has only her body to sell; thus, she represents the disenfranchised working class. She is being, in essence, a prostitute for the pimp tramps (and pimps, as mafia, are a perfect metaphor for capitalists, as I’ve argued elsewhere); small wonder The Miraculous Mandarin was banned on moral grounds.

There is probably no worse example of worker exploitation than that of pimps exploiting prostitutes, something euphemistically expressed in this pantomime through the girl’s erotic dancing. Thus we can easily see why Lenin, in his agenda to promote equality for women, wanted to end prostitution.

The concert suite version of The Miraculous Mandarin cuts out a brief section of the music at around this point, at a ritardando when the girl refuses to dance for male passers-by. We hear a plaintive melody played on the first violins; then, when the tramps repeat their brutish demand of her and she, however reluctantly, acquiesces, the section cut out from the suite ends, and the discords in the music sadly begin to calm down in a decrescendo. The girl is about to do her first seductive dance.

She begins a lockspiel–a “decoy game”–by a window to attract the first victim. We hear a clarinet solo as she dances. The first victim is an old rake, who sees her and is immediately enticed by her. Musically, he is represented by trombone glissandi spanning a minor third, which is an important interval heard at various points throughout the pantomime.

A minor third is suggestive of sadness. It is significant that we hear so much of it in this piece, for it reflects the universality of suffering as experienced in the world of this story. Hearing the minor thirds in the trombone glissandi, representing the lecherous old rake, is important in how it links lack and suffering with desire, an important combined theme in The Miraculous Mandarin.

As György Kroó explains in his analysis of the pantomime: “The minor third has a special function in The Miraculous Mandarin. Because of the central role of the ‘desire’ motif this interval is the differentia specifica in the work’s score.” (Gillies, page 380)

As the shabby old rake lustfully watches her dance, she asks if he has any money, during which time we hear a flirtatious melody on the cor anglais. He replies, “Never mind money! All that matters is love.” Useless to the tramps, the penniless man is thrown out, at which time we hear the tense 6/8 motif with the minor seconds.

Part of how the capitalist class keeps the poor in control is by dividing them; one common division is made between the sexes. We’ve already seen how women are exploited and injured because of this divisive use of sex roles, in making women into sex objects. Men have their lust exploited through how society addicts them to beautiful women; and if men don’t provide money, they’re deemed useless, as the old rake is, and as the shy boy will be.

The girl returns to the window and resumes her dancing. We hear the clarinet again during this second lockspiel. The shy young man appears, and he is as captivated by her beauty as the old rake was. His shyness makes his seduction more difficult; the clarinet solo is longer and more florid.

Soon, he and the girl dance to a haunting theme on the bassoon, a melody featuring tritones, in 5/4 time, backed up by rising notes on the harp; then the theme is played on the flute, then there are crescendi and decrescendi on the clarinet, suggesting a heating-up of the dancers’ passion. Finally, the haunting theme is heard briefly on two solo violins, and finally, climactically on all the first and second violins. The boy has been successfully drawn into the den, where the hiding tramps are poised to strike.

They attack the boy, and we hear the opening 6/8 motif with the minor seconds again. The tramps learn that the shy young man hasn’t any money either, so he is quickly thrown out, too.

The girl gets ready to do a third lockspiel at the window, and we hear the solo clarinet again. This time, a wealthy mandarin appears at the door. We hear a kind of parody of a stereotypically pentatonic Asian melody here, harmonized in tritones. She is terrified of him; next, we hear three loud brass glissandi (trombones and tuba) in descending minor thirds (recall how the minor third suggests sadness, so in this moment of the tramps’ desire of the mandarin’s money, and the mandarin’s growing desire of the girl, we have desire again as the cause of suffering). The mandarin stands immobile at the doorway, and her dancing only very slowly arouses his desire.

An interesting question needs to be addressed here: why a mandarin, of all male victims, to be the most important one of the story? György Kroó explains: “The chief male figure of the pantomime, the mandarin, is not typical of modern urban society–as are all the other characters–but is a force existing outside society. He is, to some extent, an unreal and symbolic figure. It is this unreality and symbolism which lend him a fearful greatness, enabling him to stand isolated above the world of the vagabonds, and to defy them. But the mandarin’s triumph is only symbolic: he raises the girl to his own level of existence by making her aware of herself as a human being and aware of the existence of true love. For this victory, of course, the mandarin has to die, and the girl is left standing beside his body, shocked and lost in wonder, unable now by herself to progress to a better life, unable alone to oppose the evil surrounding her.” (Gillies, pages 372-373)

This “force existing outside society,” an East Asian in a European city, can be seen to personify the East Asian Third World, just as the girl represents the exploited proletariat of the First World. The tramps, representing the rapacious bourgeoisie, have failed to get any money from the men of their own society, so they must find riches from men of foreign countries.

What we see being expressed here allegorically is the shift into imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, as Lenin theorized. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall forces capitalists to seek out counteracting factors, one of the chief ones of these in the modern world being the exploitation of foreign markets. The robbing of, and violence against, the mandarin thus represents the invasion and plunder of the Third World.

We often speak of the Third World as poor, as undeveloped or underdeveloped. Actually, these countries are rich, like the mandarin who personifies them in the pantomime. It’s the people of the Third World who are poor, like the mandarin after he’s been robbed and brutalized. The Global South isn’t underdeveloped, it’s overexploited.

The China of the time that The Miraculous Mandarin was composed and premiered was similarly exploited by imperialism; but like the defiant mandarin, Mao Zedong stood up to the imperialists. (More will be said below about how The Miraculous Mandarin can be retroactively allegorized on contemporary China.)

As I said above, the girl is scared of the mandarin and runs off to the other side of the room. Much of her reason for being scared is presumably out of xenophobia and racism against Asians, a common feeling in the West, especially at that time. In the context of the allegory I’m presenting, this xenophobia is significant, for it is a kind of tragic flaw that will ensure that the girl can never escape her exploitation (refer back to the Kroó quote above).

After the loud brass dissonant introduction of the mandarin, the music dies down with the sound of minor thirds in decrescendo in the French horns (F# and A). At this point, the concert suite cuts out another short passage of the music, during which we hear cello, bass, and viola pizzicatos in the background, and the tramps push the girl to get over her fears and dance to lure in the mandarin.

The concert suite resumes with the music at the point in the story when the girl, however reluctantly, begins to dance for the mandarin. We hear flurries of shrill, quick ascending and descending notes in the piccolo and celesta, with a dark back-up in the pizzicato and arco cellos. As I said above, the mandarin’s desire is aroused much slower than that of the previous two men, but when his desire is at its peak, it’s an explosion of lust.

His intensity of passion makes us realize that the mandarin doesn’t merely lust after her. Sexual desire for her is there, to be sure, but for him to survive the lethal assaults of the tramps means that his feelings for her must be more than merely physical. He is touched by her, as I see it: he sees not only her beauty and sex appeal, but also her vulnerability and suffering because of the tramps.

My allegory can explain the transcendent nature of his desire. I say that she represents the Western proletariat; he represents the exploited Third World. Sexual union between the two thus represents the needed solidarity of the global proletariat. He wants her because he empathizes with her.

The relative comforts of living in the First World, even for the working poor amongst us, cause us to have limited revolutionary potential. The desperate poverty of the Third World, on the other hand, gives the people suffering there far greater revolutionary potential (consider that huge general strike in India to see my point).

The girl is repelled by the mandarin, just as the First World poor pay far too little attention to the suffering of those in the Third World. The mandarin’s desire for the girl grows and grows, just as the poor of the Global South, growing ever more desperate, needs the help of the First World (consider the oppression of the Palestinians to see my point).

The girl gets over her inhibitions, and she and the mandarin begin dancing a waltz whose melody is full of minor thirds and tritones. Again, we see lack and sorrow (symbolized by the minor thirds and the diabolus in musica) linked with desire (the soon-to-be lovers’ romantic waltz).

As I said above, his desire isn’t merely lust. It’s more of a Lacanian desire, the desire of the Other, to be what the Other wants, to be recognized by the Other (in this case being, of course, the girl). This wish for recognition from the Other, to be as desired of the Other as one desires the Other, means we’re not dealing with the selfish lust of the old rake or the shy young man. Those two just wanted to get from her; the mandarin wants to get and to give. This wish for desire to be mutual between the mandarin and the girl again, in the context of my allegory, represents the need for solidarity among the oppressed of the world.

The waltz that they dance grows louder, faster, and more impassioned, and the hitherto reticent mandarin suddenly goes wild with desire, terrifying the girl. He chases her all over the tramps’ den. The music gets barbarically dissonant, with pounding drums and a fugue passage representing (fittingly, given the etymology of fugue) his pursuit of the girl. He seizes her, and they struggle.

After this music reaches its most chaotic, brutal point, the concert suite ends with four bars in 2/2, and a tense chord featuring minor thirds is played three times to give the suite a sense of finality. (This three-chord repetition isn’t heard in the full pantomime performance.) It is at this point that the tramps come out of hiding and attack the mandarin. The music isn’t as loud now, but it’s still just as tense.

The tramps strip him of his riches and finery. All he can do is stare longingly at the girl. Having wondered what to do with the mandarin now that they’ve taken all of his valuables, the tramps decide to kill him. This violence against him symbolizes the plunder of the Third World, the taking of its valuable resources and the killing of anyone living there who dares to resist.

The tramps grab pillows and blankets, put them on the mandarin’s head, and try to smother him by sitting on him. After a while, they figure he must be dead and get off of him. The music softens. He’s still alive and looking at the girl. His would-be killers are amazed and horrified.

The tramps make a second attempt to kill him; this time, one of them grabs a sword and stabs him three times with it. Still, he won’t die. Still, he stares at the girl. The tramps cannot believe their eyes.

This miraculous refusal to die may remind us, in a symbolic way, of how the victims of imperialism won’t back down after being invaded. To see what I mean, look not only at the Chinese resistance to Imperial Japan in the 1930s and 40s, not only at the USSR’s successful repelling of the White Army during the civil war of around the years 1918-1921, and of the Nazis during WWII; but also look at the continued resistance to the American empire in Afghanistan and Iraq. China is a miraculous mandarin in its own right these days, surrounded by US military bases, and on the receiving end of hostility from Hong Kong and Taiwan; but China keeps getting stronger and stronger…and richer.

A third attempt is made to kill the mandarin, this time by hanging him from a lamp hook. It falls to the floor, and instead of the hanging killing him, the light of the lamp goes out and seems to be transferred onto him, for now he–always with his eyes on the girl–is glowing with a greenish-blue aura. A wordless chorus (alto and basso at first; later, tenors and sopranos will harmonize) begins singing a melody in mostly minor thirds as he glows, suggesting a superhuman quality in him.

This superhuman quality of the mandarin, with the suffering he’s being put through while cheating death, suggests a Christ symbolism for him. His hanging from the lamp can be associated with the Crucifixion, while his glow–suggesting the spiritual body of the Resurrection–and the almost angelic choral singing lend a kind of mysticism to him.

Now, when I compare the mandarin to Christ, I don’t mean the ecclesiastical Christ whose “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), He who died on the Cross to save us from our sins; rather, I mean the Jewish messianic conception–that of the revolutionary who attempted a defiance of ancient imperial Rome. This was the Jesus of such books as Hyam Maccoby‘s Revolution in Judea, in keeping with the anti-imperialist allegory I’ve been outlining here.

The desire that this messianic mandarin has for the girl can thus be associated with the sexual desire expressed in the Song of Songs, as allegorized as the love of Christ for his Church (i.e., the girl). So this mandarin, in his defiance of the brutality of the exploitative tramps (symbolic of capitalist imperialists), is making revolutionary overtures to the girl (representing the First World proletariat), hoping she’ll join him in solidarity against their oppressors (i.e., through their sexual union).

Finally, she realizes what must be done. She understands the true nature of his desires, and just as he is touched by her vulnerability and suffering under her exploitation, so is she touched by his love for her: this is the only reason she could have for doing what she’s about to do. She has the tramps untie the mandarin. She lets him have her.

Now, she satisfies his desire, but it’s far too late: the injuries that the tramps have inflicted on him can’t be undone. His wounds open, and he finally dies, with lethargic, anticlimactic music playing as he collapses on the floor bleeding, her watching in horror. This ending relates to my allegory in the following way. There is a danger in not responding quickly enough to the call for revolution in today’s late stage capitalism. The global proletariat must unite, and they must do so…fast!

As with sex roles, racism and xenophobia are used by the ruling class to divide the people. Look at Trump’s “Build the wall!” nonsense to see my point. The excessive nationalism of fascism is used to prevent international solidarity.

The girl’s xenophobic prejudice against the mandarin is what makes her take so long to unite with him. Imagine if, instead, not only were she and the mandarin to unite immediately upon meeting each other, but if they, the shy young man, the old rake, and any other men potentially tempted by her dancing, were to combine their strengths against the tramps and end their exploitation and victimization once and for all?

Selfishness and alienation are inimical to the solidarity of the people against their ultimate enemy, the capitalist class. Now that the mandarin is dead, the girl is alone against the now-monied tramps. She is in an evil trap she cannot escape.

In composing The Miraculous Mandarin, Bartók was warning of the growing evils of the world. “Between 1919 and 1924, while working on this work, Bartók was experiencing a great sense of loneliness. He felt quite isolated in his efforts to warn society of the evils he could see. By setting the ‘elemental life force’ in opposition to ‘degraded emotion’, he cried ‘No!’ to the world of evil, and to the immorality of the dehumanized apaches. And as an example to those who had confidence and hope, he presented the figure of the mandarin who, like Bartók himself, is a constant reminder of courage in opposition, determination in thought and feeling–the very triumph of man.” (Gillies, pages 383-384)

Consider the evils of today’s world, the contemporary exacerbation of those Bartók had been aware of a century ago. Consider what might happen if we lack the “courage in opposition” and “determination in thought and feeling” needed to end those evils. Though the danger of nuclear war between the US on one side, and China and Russia on the other, is more than possible, all we need to do to end life on the Earth is to continue to be passive in the face of growing climate change. Then the moribund musical ending of the pantomime will express what TS Eliot once did: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Malcolm Gillies, editor, The Bartók Companion, London, Faber and Faber, 1993

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