Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Béla Bartók

Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Sz. 48, Op. 11, BB62 • “A kéksz. akállú Herceg Vára”

About this work

The year 1911 was, from one perspective, exactly the wrong time for a young, albeit respected, composer to be making his initial foray into opera. As Bartók labored on his first and only essay in the genre, he must have been aware that entertainment-seeking European audiences were then enjoying the efforts of a formidable cadre of established, wildly successful operatic composers. Still active as Bluebeard's Castle took shape were crowd-pleasers Puccini, Giordano, and Mascagni in Italy and Humperdinck and Richard Strauss in Germany, among others. It is not too surprising, then, to learn that when Bartók submitted the imaginatively dark-hued Bluebeard to the Hungarian Fine Arts Commission, the opera was rejected for a prize with a time-honored dismissal: "unplayable." It took another seven years for Bluebeard's Castle to receive its first staging; the work was finally premiered with much success by the Royal Hungarian Opera in May 1918. Its promising reception was, however, curtailed by the political intrigues of wartime Hungary. Librettist Béla Balázs (1884-1949) was inclined toward political views contrary to those of the government. After Bartók, whether out of loyalty or personal conviction, refused to suppress Balázs' name at subsequent performances, he himself withdrew the work, and it remained unperformed in Budapest for another 20 years.

While at the time of Bluebeard's composition Bartók was continuing to absorb the influence of other composers (including Liszt, Wagner, Strauss, and, then very recently, Debussy), the composer was also engaged with other, more deeply rooted musical concerns. The best-known and perhaps most important of these was his long-standing interest in the folk songs of his native Hungary and surrounding lands, which he spent several years collecting and transcribing together with his associate Zoltán Kodály. Particularly attractive to the composer were this music's exotic modes and scales and flexible, speech-inflected rhythms.

This latter aspect in particular proved central to Bartók's conception of Bluebeard's Castle at a time when his experience as a vocal composer had been limited largely to concise forms such as those he had observed in his travels to peasant villages. "I wanted to magnify," he later wrote of the opera, "the dramatic fluidum of Székely's folk ballads for the stage. And I wanted to depict a modern soul in the primary colors of folk song." Bartók uses mostly pentantonic scales as Bluebeard's wife Judith opens the doors of his castle and comes to the realization that she is one of his gruesome prizes. The climax of the arch form of the work is achieved in tension, volume, orchestration, and lighting at the opening of the fifth door, where the tonality changes to a new chromatic scale that stands in sharp contrast to all that has gone before. The score uses only one musical motif: a movement of a semitone symbolizing the omnipresent blood.

The composer was further attracted to the project by the story of Bluebeard itself, which had already attained several incarnations by the time of Bartók's setting. Originally recounting the crimes against children perpetrated by the fifteenth century Marshal of France Gilles de Retz, the story was spun into a fairy tale by Charles Perrault and later fashioned into a play/libretto (for Paul Dukas) by Maurice Maeterlinck. Bartók employed Balázs' symbolist version, in which fantastic elements provide metaphorical associations with Bluebeard's entrapment in loneliness and his wife's ultimately unsuccessful attempts to free him from this fate. The plot is totally allegorical and lacks action.