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Composed: 1911
Length: c. 55 minutes
Orchestration: four flutes (3rd and 4th = piccolo), two oboes, English horn, three clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), four bassoons (4th = contrabassoon), four horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba, two harps, celesta, organ, timpani, bass drum, tambourine, gong, cymbals, suspended cymbal, xylophone, triangle, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 27, 1968, Zubin Mehta conducting, with soloists Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry

A prologue, which in staged productions is recited by a character in bardic costume, opens Bluebeard’s Castle. The stage direction following the prologue is as follows: “It is a vast, circular, Gothic hall. Steep stairs at the left lead up to a small iron door. To the right of the stairs, seven enormous doors, four of them directly facing the audience, the last two at one side. No windows, no ornamentation. The hall is empty, dark, and forbidding, like a cave hewn in the heart of solid rock... Suddenly the small iron door at the head of the stairs is flung wide, and in the dazzling light appear the black, silhouetted figures of Bluebeard and Judith.”

Welcome to Bluebeard’s Castle, not the fairy-tale castle of Charles Perrault’s 17th-century tale, dripping with the gore of the legendary wife-murdering ogre, like some earlier incarnation of Jack the Ripper, but the suggestive, decidedly 20th-century world of the shadowy Duke Bluebeard of playwright Béla Balázs and composer Béla Bartók, a study of loneliness, of the “failure to communicate,” of illusion vs. reality.

To gain some notion of what appealed to Bartók about the plot, consider the following, from a letter he wrote to his mother in 1905:

“I am a lonely man! I may have a few friends in Budapest, yet there are times when I suddenly become aware of the fact that I am absolutely alone. And I have a foreknowledge that this spiritual loneliness is to be my destiny. I look about me in search of the ideal companion, and yet I am fully aware that it is a vain quest. Even if I should ever succeed in finding someone, I am sure that I would soon be disappointed.”

In 1911, Bartók would set such feelings to music, not to his own words but to those of the like-minded playwright, Béla Balázs.

Balázswas born, in 1884, as Herbert Bauer, into a Hungarian-Jewish family of German background. As a Hungarian nationalist, however, the “Bauer” had to go as soon as the teenager had begun to attract some attention with his poetry.

Balázs and the composer Zoltán Kodály were roommates at a training institute for teachers in Budapest. Kodály introduced the poet and dramatist-to-be to Bartók in 1906 when he found that Balász shared their interest in folk song. After the three men went on their first folk song collecting trip together, Balász wrote in his diary:

“He [Bartók] is a naive and gawky 25-year-old Wunderkind. There is an admirable, quiet tenacity about him. He is a weak, scrawny, sickly wisp of a man, but even when I was dead tired, he urged me on, no drove me on, to collect more. He plays beautifully, composes fine things. He is the captive of his talent.”

Bartók wrote of that period, many years later:

“I had recently become acquainted with Debussy’s work, studied it thoroughly, and was greatly surprised to find in it pentatonic phrases similar in character to those contained in our peasant music. I was sure these could be attributed to influences of folk music from Eastern Europe... It seems therefore that, in our age, modern music has developed along similar lines in countries geographically far apart. It has become rejuvenated under the influence of a kind of peasant music that has remained untouched by the musical creations of the last centuries.”

That Balázs chose the Bluebeard story for his text was fortuitous but hardly accidental. He had been taken with the suggestion of the characters’ “inner struggles” in Maeterlinck’s drama Ariane et Barbe-bleu — set to music, incidentally, by Paul Dukas in 1906 — but felt that Maeterlinck had not examined them in sufficient depth. The air becomes thick with coincidence when we find, too, that in 1906 Kodály discovered and shared with his colleagues a folk ballad he had found on a similar theme, The Ballad of Anna Molnár, which bears a decided resemblance to the Bluebeard story, i.e., it is about a woman who asks questions she shouldn’t ask of a shadowy man who may or may not be a wife-killer. She, like Elsa in Wagner’s opera, is asked “only” to trust Lohengrin completely, with blind obedience, lest she lose his love forever. But Anna is not so compliant: rather, she kills her lover, steals his horse, and returns to the bosom of her family.

As if in preparation for their joint venture, Balázs and Bartók spent long hours discussing “woman’s place” in society. One such session produced the following marvel of woolly-headedness, again addressed by the composer to his mother:

“Women should be accorded the same liberties as men. Women ought to be free to do the same things as men, or men ought not to be free to do things women aren’t supposed to do — I used to believe this to be so for the sake of equality. However, after giving the subject much thought, I have come to believe that women are so different in mind and body that it may not be such a bad idea after all to demand from women a greater degree of chastity. But though these considerations might lead one to favor more restraints for women, one has to take into account what happens all too often as a result... And so I come back to where I started: equal standards for men and women.”

THE PLOT/THE MUSIC

Judith has, we learn, left her comfortable home — a place of brightness and sunlight — to follow the enigmatic Bluebeard, attracted by his sorrowing air of mystery. As she gropes her way through his dark castle, she remarks on the dampness of the walls, at which point the binding musical element of the opera makes its first appearance: the dissonant harmony of a minor second, G-sharp – A, first stated by the horns and oboes. Unbeknown to her, it is the “blood motif.”

Judith sees the seven doors of the castle.

She knocks on the first door and is answered by a deep moaning. She demands the key and with deepest misgivings, Bluebeard hands it to her. The door opens, to a spooky violin tremolo, revealing the ghastly tools of a torture chamber. Judith now realizes (hint: G-sharp – A, this time in clarinets and muted trumpets) that the damp on the castle walls is blood.

Fearlessly, she demands the second key, wresting it from the unwilling Bluebeard’s hand. As the second door opens, woodwinds and solo trumpet play a brisk martial tune: this is Bluebeard’s armory. Judith claims that this, too, does not frighten her and asks for the remaining keys, as proof of his love for her. He gives her only the keys to the next three doors. As she approaches the third, the music becomes gently placating, then against a long, “magical” chord — trumpets, solo cello, flute tremolo — Judith exults, “Mountains of gold!” and the orchestra describes brilliantly illuminated jewels, crowns, exquisite fabrics, but as the light dims Judith sees — the fatal motif asserts itself again — that all these treasures are covered with blood. Bluebeard moves her toward the fourth room, which opens onto an enchanted garden, filled with blossoms, birds, chirping insects. But there is blood here too, in the soil that nourishes the roses and lilies.

The fifth door opens to a radiant C-major chord for the full orchestra, over an organ pedal. Judith gazes, awestruck, on Bluebeard’s kingdom in all its glory: broad meadows, dense forests, great rivers and heaven-touching mountains. But blood-colored clouds hover (those fatal seconds, now in trombones and tremolo strings). Bluebeard implores Judith to seek no further, but she prevails.

She opens the sixth door, and a moaning comes from the depths beyond. The orchestra shudders that motif (this time G – G-sharp), revealing a dull sheet of water: “Tears, Judith, tears,” Bluebeard says three times, and quietly tells Judith that the seventh door will remain forever closed.

Judith, to this point confident and outspoken in her demands, becomes kittenish, pleading with Bluebeard — in what can be regarded as the opera’s love duet — to tell her whether there were women he loved before her. His answer is vague. As the blood motif runs amok in the orchestra, she accuses him of murdering his previous wives and hiding their bodies behind the seventh door. Spent, he gives her the last key.

The final door slowly opens and, according to the stage directions, “silver moonlight streams through it, illuminating Judith’s and Bluebeard’s faces.” Here, he tells her, are his three former wives, the ones he has loved before her. Each wears a crown and is bedecked with jewels. They proceed proudly toward Bluebeard, who kneels before them. Judith, the fourth, stands next to them.

Bluebeard relates that he found the first at dawn, that she is the new day; the second came to him in the blaze of noon, the eternal heat of day; the third is the creature of twilight. Before each pronouncement, Judith asserts that she is nothing compared to these celestial visions.

The fourth — Judith — Bluebeard found at midnight, “her face possessed by starlight... Every night is yours forever.” He places a crown on her head, a “starry mantle” on her shoulders. She follows the other wives along a silvery beam of light into the darkness of the seventh door, leaving Bluebeard alone as the stage darkens. Then he, too, disappears into the darkness.

Bartók finished setting the libretto in 1911, whereupon he submitted the opera to the judges of a competition held by the Hungarian Commission of Fine Arts. The prize was a completely subsidized production of the “best lyric work” available from a native composer. The manuscript was returned to the composer with a single word written across the title page: “Unperformable.”

The operatic establishment was not ready for its joined musical dissonance and symbolic drama until 1918, seven years after the score’s completion and the successful production of Bartók’s ballet The Wooden Prince, also to a scenario by Balázs.

In May of that year, the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest finally mounted what would be Bartók’s only opera and a masterpiece of modern musical drama, Bluebeard’s Castle.

– Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He has also written for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and for periodicals in Europe and the United States. He recently completed his 15th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.