Musical Explanation 1/9/16: Bluebeard's Castle by Bartok
Bela Bartok was a fiercely private man. Possibly autistic, he was a man so obsessed by his work that the idea of human relationships filled him with a kind of terror. Bluebeard's Castle is an opera about secrets. Shortly before Bartok began work on it, he married a woman he'd later divorce. In 'just' one hour his new wife learns the seven terrible secrets of Bluebeard's soul, which lie behind the seven doors locked doors of his castle. Behind the seventh door lies his final, terrible secret, that he murdered his first three wives.... Or did he?
Is Bluebeard simply a murderer, or is he tragic figure? One famous Hungarian conductor, Istvan Kertesz, speculated that Bluebeard was in fact the hero of the opera, a tragic figure in horrendous pain, and his wife Judith was a sadistic harpy determined to extract Bluebeard's secrets regardless of his emotions, and therefore practically deserved to be murdered. That's more than a bit extreme - anyone should be able to understand why a wife might be vigilant in discovering whether or not her husband might kill her. And yet, there is still an unmistakeable tragic grandeur about Bluebeard. However perverse it may be to feel sympathy for him, the music shows that he is clearly a man in terrible anguish. He may be psychotic, he may be a misogynist, he may be a sadist, but damnit, he still has feelings...
This kind of many-layered irony is the key to this opera, which is shorter than almost every Mahler symphony. We're told that every possession behind every door in Bluebeard's castle is stained with blood, but whose blood is it: his victims, or his own? Judith is understandably perplexed and anxious about what is in the castle, but she still comes across as rather manipulative, and one wonders if a more (though probably impossibly) forgiving wife might have assuaged Bluebeard's dark side..., at least for a time. The music paints a picture of anguish. Bartok wrote this opera on the cusp of World War One, and he was not quite the fiercely dissonant composer he'd be in ten years. He was a composer in thrall to the airy textures of Debussy and the 'realistic' musical effects of Richard Strauss. The result, musically, is somewhere between a Strauss tone poem and Debussy's opera Pelleas et Melisande (which is really more of a cantata).
Where it differs is in the thirty-year-old Bartok's knowledge of folk music, which was already stupendous. With its Arabic and Russian influences, Balkan folk music is far more dissonant and flavorful than most folk music to its north-east, which has the diatonicism of most classical music without the complexity. More than any composer short of Mahler and Janacek, Bartok used dissonance to highlight chords that crystalized the experience of searing emotional agony as no composer yet has equalled. After Bluebeard, Bartok moved in a different, much less subjective direction. In so many ways, his later work is wonderful, even titanic, but it was never again quite as personal as this. Just as trauma victims do, after World War I, Bartok backed away from the emotionalism of an earlier era, seeing it as the remnants of a different time when sentimental attachments were more easily affordable.
This performance is unfortunately at a bit of a low level, but it is the greatest performance I've ever heard: Christoph von Dohnanyi conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. I remember hearing the relay of this performance when it first happened, and it floored me. Years later, I would listen to the video of this concert performance and check it against the score. To my astonishment, it followed this incredibly detailed score almost exactly, tempo for tempo, dynamic for dynamic.
Musically, Bluebeard is full of events and almost ceaselessly hyperactive. Theatrically, the opera almost stationary and impossible to stage. The music is so graphic and vivid that nothing on stage can possibly equal it for description. Bluebeard's Castle is the perfect opera to perform in concert, because the music does all the heavy lifting, there's almost nothing which a performance in the theater can add. Nevertheless, eight or nine years ago, Ben Giovine and I were fortunate enough to see a production of Bluebeard directed by William Friedkin, better known as the director of The Exorcist. It was perfect, with ghost puppetry and the most chilling denoument that's possible to extract. It was an experience that I will never forget, and if Bluebeard was already a work very close to my heart, the became an indelible life experience that night.