I've heard from many corners that most great art is borne out of painful experience and it's something with which I completely disagree. Instead, I think art comes from emotional experiences that are wide in range, morality, and perspective. We have all heard music written just for the pleasure principle alone, or from virtually every emotion that our complex psyches can produce. But even those works written for the simple enjoyment of beauty usually draw inspiration at a deeper level from emotions that can come from many sources. Even more interesting to me are works that have many emotional layers drawn from multiple sources.
One such work is Bela Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin and I find myself completely fascinated by the sheer virtuosity of the writing and the emotional impact that these sounds create (I'm preparing the Suite right now). It's perhaps one of his greatest works and certainly in my mind a contender for one of the best of the 20th century. While not influential in the way the Rite of Spring has been, nor Wozzeck, or any number of other 'seminal' compositions, it has certainly been a score both musicologists and musicians have poured over with great interest, and beyond, one that has led listeners on a dark journey, yet one that is ultimately uplifting in a bizarre fashion.
This is what puzzles me: the source material that Bartok used was a 4 page lurid story by Melchior Lengyel, a radical Hungarian journalist and writer. This "pantomine grotesque: draws its inspiration not from pain, but from twisted passion as well. It tells the story of a young woman who is forced by three thugs to prostitute herself in order to lure potential men/victims into a room who they can then rob. She plays a seduction game with three men. The first two have nothing and are thrown out badly beaten. But the third, a Mandarin (a wealthy Chinese man), comes in and is fascinated by the girl. When the thugs rob him of his jewelry and money, they try to get rid of him by suffocation, then repeated stabbing, then by hanging him on a light fixture. When the lamp to which he is tied breaks and falls, he gets up, goes to the girl, and then finally takes delight in an embrace. With his longing satisfied, the Mandarin finally begins to bleed from all the abuse he has withstood and dies.
Pretty horrible stuff…
So I'm confused as to why I find myself absolutely enthralled by music that represents an idea that I abhor. As a result I have tried to figure out the process by which both I and countless others with a moral compass pointing in an opposite direction can embrace this sort of work.
I first have to understand Bartok's creative circumstances. If I think back to the time that he was composing (1918-1924) I find several striking aspects of his life that are salient. One is that he had just lived through World War I where millions of people died. His view of the world was upset by an upended power structure, and for him, the result of all this seemingly indiscriminate carnage led to the world's first fascist dictator, who took power in Hungary. At the same time cities were becoming industrial metropolises that were both creating wealth and an underbelly of crime, prostitution, and poverty. While Bartok was writing this score, there were gunshots he could hear outside his door.
At the same time he was fascinated not just by just folk music, as one of the first true ethnomusicologists, but also by music played in the emerging lower class. He felt there was something pure in expression when music revealed how people existed in poverty, in good and bad ways. It had nothing to do with any sort of posturing in his mind.
He was living in a time when Freud had been exploring repressed sexuality, which by all measure created many types of psychological problems. There were racy plays being written such as Lulu (which Berg later used for an opera) and Spring Awakening that were fascinating audiences. He must have been taken by these new powerful ideas that were coming out into the light, and this certainly could provide a type of inspiration that was much more impulsive and in line with the nature of folk expression - something unfiltered and unadulterated. Even then, sex sold.
Finally when one looks at the portrayal of the Mandarin, there are implicitly racist overtones that are offensive. However, Hungarians found a common thread between the barbaric nature of their history and that of the Chinese, combined with hyper intellectualism, so while the setting seems awful, in another way it represents what Bartok felt was a common base response shared between cultures, ultimately fueled by elemental passion.
So here is Bartok with all of these influences, putting them into amazingly descriptive sound, with a craft level that is astonishing, featuring all sorts of orchestral effects including chromatic scales, tremelos, trills, glissandi, cluster chords, mutes, percussive effects, all manner of string effects including quarter tones at one point, and fluttertonguing in the winds. Its orchestrational brilliance outshines most of the other scores I've looked at from this time period at the beginning of the 20th Century, and purely on a musical level, is breathtaking in effect.
Understanding where Bartok was when he was writing the music is helpful, because his response to much of what was happening in his life can still be contextualized today, with urban sprawl, cruelty, murder, abuse, and poverty around us every day. There's certainly a part of me that is looking to escape some of these terrible things, but another part wants to know and not ignore the difficulties others face. So to understand, sometimes one must dive into the experiences of others to feel their desperation, even it is truly at a distance. It's why we are many times attracted to movies that depict difficult things to see - it takes us out of our own lives and allows us to feel suffering, but without fear. Or why we work at soup kitchens, which if you have done so, will truly show how people exactly like you can end up in difficult circumstances.
While we are not in the mood for suffering every day, having the chance to understand a slice of history more deeply can be ultimately uplifting. How many films have we seen about the holocaust, lost love, grifters and thieves, people facing tough choices? Why is it that folks flock to see these movies, or go to art shows with similar material, but have a such a hard time accepting it in music?
I think the reason is that music can illuminate these challenging subjects in a way that goes to a deeper place of understanding, since it works on such an elementally emotional level. For me, this is what I find so compelling about The Miraculous Mandarin. It's like a film crafted at the absolute highest level, but one that takes me on a journey into darkness in a manner that is more personal and internal. At the end of the work, having traveled down this path, I feel moved by the pity and hatred I feel toward the thugs, the sadness I feel for the girl, and the pure passion that I see in the Mandarin that transcends what other humans can do to each other. The music creates a picture in my head that is at once captivating and repulsive. When I hear something that is purely beautiful, I have a basis on which to see it as such because of my exposure to works such as this.
It is true that I love comedies and laughter. But occasionally I find works of art from the dark side of human experience an extremely important part of my artistic diet. If you are not familiar with this masterpiece, I can recommend it to you enthusiastically, although in the same breath, it will not be a piece you go to every day. But occasionally, it will take you on a journey that is truly miraculous in nature.