Notes 58.2 (2001) 358-360
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Inside Bluebeard's Castle: Music and Drama in Béla Bartók's Opera
Inside Bluebeard's Castle: Music and Drama in Béla Bartók's Opera.By Carl S. Leafstedt. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. [viii, 246 p. ISBN 0-19-510999-6. $45.]
In 1440, Gilles de Laval, Baron of Rais, was burned alive for crimes including the sodomization and murder of some 140 children. De Laval is often considered the historical Bluebeard, the grisly protagonist of the tale in which a man kills a succession of wives for looking into a forbidden room. First published by Charles Perrault in 1697, the story has a long history in musical theater, most memorably as the subject of Béla Bartók's only opera, Bluebeard's Castle. As Carl Leafstedt points out in his laudable study of the opera, "Bluebeard" belongs to a category of folktales known as "forbidden-chamber" stories, which can be found in diverse cultures the world over. (Bartók himself knew the closely related Hungarian folk ballad "Anna Molnár" from his folk-song collecting expeditions.) The tricky task for a musicologist writing on Bluebeard's Castle is to foster a multivalent interpretation in keeping with the spirit of the myth at the opera's core while stripping away the layers of hearsay and lore that have come to obscure important facts about its composition and early history.
Leafstedt does an admirable job with both tasks in a multifaceted book, which, in an apparent reference to the structure of the opera (an introduction and seven scenes corresponding to the castle's seven locked doors), consists of an introduction and seven chapters. The chapters are grouped into three parts. Part 1, "Bartók, Balázs, and the Creation of a Modern Hungarian Opera," traces the history of Béla Balázs's Bluebeard, the play Bartók adapted (with few changes) for his opera, and the relationship between composer and playwright. Part 2, "Music and Drama in Bluebeard's Castle," offers an analysis of each scene of the opera as we know it from the 1917 score, as well as a discussion of the version Bartók completed in 1911. Part 3, "Contextual Studies," presents the history of the Bluebeard myth and considers the importance of Balázs's choice of the name Judith for the heroine of the play.
Leafstedt is a good digger; his demythologizing of Bluebeard's Castle is the result of [End Page 358] thorough research. For example, the opera's lack of success in two competitions (one sponsored by a Budapest social club called the Lipótvárosi Casino in 1911, the other by Bartók's sometime publisher Rózsavölgyi in 1912) has generally been taken to signify an unwillingness of the Hungarian musical establishment to accept Bartók's music. Leafstedt's careful reading of the rules of the Rózsavölgyi competition and other surviving documents strongly suggests, however, that the opera was rejected from at least one of the competitions solely on the basis of its libretto. The dramaturges who judged the work untheatrical never forwarded the score to Rózsavölgyi's music jury.
More important for our understanding of the opera is the sleuthing Leafstedt has done on Balázs's literary influences. It is well known that the literary style of Bluebeard owes a great deal to the work of Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck. Leafstedt, however, is the first to argue that Balázs's symbolism differs from Maeterlinck's in ways that suggest the influence of German playwright Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863), the subject of Balázs's doctoral dissertation. In particular, Leafstedt singles out Hebbel's concept of "tragic guilt," the notion that the exertion of individual will disrupts the balance of the world, and though innocent of this disruption, the individual must be punished by being subsumed into the whole. This concept may well lie behind Balázs's treatment of Judith. For, instead of...
Language, Characters and Some Analysis
Here there is an English version of the opera's libretto. It is actually written in Hungarian language as mentioned before. An English version is maybe not so successful to show real manner of the piece, but even this is English I think there are some clues about character establihments. First of all something is significant for me: usage style of language. When I look at Bluebeard's words, I see that they are generally in old English language style. Judith speaks a rather modern language. I think this situation is not a problem of translation, this must be intentionally. This traditional usage of language is also parallel with music. Bartok uses much more pentatonic kind of movements to make Bluebeard speak. Pentatonic scales are very characteristic for folk music, this situation again make us think about traditional approach. So Bluebeard is a kind of tradition figure with all these features in my opinion.
By the way, Judith is a much more "flexible" characters in terms of those features. As said, her language is much more modern rather than Bluebeard. It is not like that but at least I feel as if Bluebeard is much more older than Judith. This strengten my feeling about the situation. Also her melodies, lines are generally in a diatonic manner - at least she has variety of modes and feelings much more than Bluebeard.
Also rhythmically they are really diffirent. Bluebeard sings in a more "walking" way. More regular patterns, 2/4 or 4/4 generally... About its manner I can say maybe even "maestoso" or maybe as better "misterioso". But Judith is just opposite with again variety of rhythmic pattern usage. It is as if her curiosity dances, runs, jumps around Bluebeard and makes him annoyed gradually.
All those tell me actually this is not a story of a man and a women actually. I think we can analyse this story from many point of views. But first thing that I thought is this about stability of some concepts. In social life some concepts like very basic traditions or norms are really deeply stable and unchangeable. And trying to change or question them creates really chaos and it is useless as we see at the and of this story.
Other than this social analysis, we can think also historically in my opinion. This opera was written in 1911 - which is just 3 years before Great World War I. That period wasn't of course not as chaotic as during or after the war. But there is a fact that system of the world was changing deeply. Economical situation was so unbalanced and instable. I think in those years people were becoming to be not sure about their future and also about themselves. Cause, those period is also the time that the concepts like subconscious, individual are much important. People were beginning to question themselves in many ways. So in this "suspicion" kind of general feeling of the period, it is normal Bartok to reflect so much suspicion and anxiety. I think Judith is a symbol that symbolizes humanity whose curiosity and anxiety is graudally rising towards life. And Bluebeard is the stable system which doesn't answer to humanity's worries and also makes it a part of the system step by step.
We know that Bartok changed the original Bluebeard story very much. In original, Judith tries to escape from him. But now there is an endless love and dependence. I thought first, his curiosity was very much. For example she sees blood everywhere, but still she tries to go on and see what is happening. She wanders gradully levels of Bluebeard's life - actually subconscious. Human brain is perfect seemingly but inside it is not so easy to understand. But I think also Judith's insistince to learn about everything is not about love at all. It is again a "humanly" kind of approach. So maybe Bartok also says, human is an extremely chaotic and inside it an extremely lonely creature. When we try to learn deep about it or try to be a part of another human's "inside", we see generally it is impossible and creates big problems. To leave everybody with their own "in" and to be individual are always healthier and mostly much happier for everyone.
Symbolism and Opera
This article explains opera history in general and there is a part about symbolist opera's development in 20th century. Actually, symbols gained importance with Wagner's approach to opera. His "leitmotif" idea was really important for this concept. Motives those symbolising characters or situtations... But with Sigmund Freud, also meanings of symbols changed very much. They became an expression of feelings or subconscious. I think main difference between Wagnerian works and Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle is this. Wagner's motives show only characters for example. When we hear a specific theme, we know that the character that the theme symbolizes is coming, or something will happen that that theme is explainig. But for Bartok, symbols are generally feelings.Judith or Bluebeard doesn't have themes those are belonging to their own. But for example anxiety theme is same for them both. When there is something wrong, we generally hear the "blood theme" which is established by a minor second interval. This symbol generally appears at the end of the scenes, when Judith saw blood somewhere, or she is again curios and anxious about another room, or when she is asking questions about their future...
There is a similar situation for words of the opera. This work is composed on Hungarian language. And there used a special way to express that interesting language, Bartok used a different "recitatif" way for this. Here meanings of some words are more important and thet are accentuated by music. So in my opinion, those words could be symbols of their specific feelings. And maybe even they have some subconscious meanings that we couldn't see very easily. I think with a deeper -maybe a Freudian- analysis, we can reach other meanings that Bartok planned to express...
This link is about Bartok's creativity's 1908-1914 period which Bluebeard's Castle was written also. Piano pieces were intensely written in this period. It is said that French effects had an important role. While the characters were reflected,for Bluebeard "smooth and pentatonic lines" and for Judith "more chromatic and angular writing" were used. Here is the part which is directly about the opera:
"In the first half of 1910 Bartók’s recognition as a composer appeared to be growing, and with it requests for him to perform. At a ‘Hungarian festival’ concert in Paris on 12 March 1910 he played several of his own works, as well as pieces by Szendy and Kodály. A press comment about these ‘young barbarians’ from Hungary probably prompted Bartók to write one of his most popular piano pieces, the Allegro barbaro bb63, in the following year. In other works of 1910–12 French influences are at their most apparent, with Debussy’s mark perhaps being too readily identified, notably in the orchestral Két kép (‘Two Pictures’) op.10 and the Four Orchestral Pieces op.12. The intervening op.11, the one-act opera A Kékszakállú herceg vára (‘Bluebeard’s Castle’) (1911) is, however, a masterful Hungarian emulation of the realism of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Written to an expressionistic libretto by Béla Balázs about the ‘mystery of the soul’, the action of Bluebeard’s Castle is negligible, involving just two singing protagonists, Bluebeard and his new wife Judith, who progress through the opening of the eponymous castle’s seven doors, drawn by the woman’s curiosity. The opera’s climactic turning-point comes at the fifth door, to Bluebeard’s kingdom, after which Judith’s jealousy becomes obsessive, leading to her eventual entombment, along with all Bluebeard’s previous wives, and eternal darkness. Bartók’s work changed the course of Hungarian opera by successfully developing a fluid form of Hungarian declamation of Balázs’s ballad-like text, based largely upon the inflections of parlando rubato folksong. He also managed to characterize the protagonists modally: Bluebeard through smooth, pentatonic lines; Judith through more chromatic and angular writing. Bartók’s operatic conception owed much to Wagner, particularly in his use of a recurring minor-2nd ‘blood’ motif, while the orchestration is still indebted to Strauss, whose influence in other compositional respects had waned. The adjudicators of two Budapest opera competitions of 1911–12 nonetheless found little merit in this ‘unperformable’ work, and it was assigned to Bartók’s drawer."
"Bluebeard's Castle" by Sandor Veress
I found this article useful to get a clear idea about the opera. First of all, approach to Bluebeard's story is very different in Bartok's work. He shows characters' depth much more, his psyhcological approach is really interesting and very different than the traditional fairytale. This article explains this in a simple and clear way. Also mentions about Debussy&Bartok relation that I was planning to mention too. As the most interesting thing for me, he sees Bluebeard as a big "crescendo" that occurs during the whole work, an Judith oppositely as a big "decrescendo" in terms of emotions, plot and their reflection to musical symbols. This opposite manner of two main characters creates an interesting effect, Bartok's way to reflect this is again to use symbols and changes those are started from and related in a way to each other.
Briefly "Bluebeard" Story
"Bluebeard is a very wealthy aristocrat, feared because of his "frightfully ugly" blue beard. He had been married several times, but no one knew what had become of his wives. He was therefore avoided by the local girls. When Bluebeard visited one of his neighbours and asked to marry one of her two daughters, the girls were terrified, and each tried to pass him on to the other. Eventually he persuaded the younger daughter (Perrault does not name the woman, but many versions state her name to be Fatima) to marry him, and after the ceremony she went to live with him in his château."
"Very shortly after, however, Bluebeard announced that he had to leave the country for a while; he gave over all the keys of the chateau to his new wife, including the key to one small room that she was forbidden to enter. He then went away and left the house in her hands. Almost immediately she was overcome with the desire to see what the forbidden room held, and finally her visiting sister, Anne, convinced her to satisfy her curiosity and open the room."
"The wife immediately discovered the room's horrible secret: Its floor was awash with blood, and the dead bodies of her husband's former wives hung from hooks on the walls. Horrified, she locked the door, but blood had come onto the key which would not wash off. Bluebeard returned unexpectedly and immediately knew what his wife had done. In a blind rage he threatened to behead her on the spot, but she implored that he give her quarter of an hour to say her prayers. He consented so she locked herself in the highest tower with her sister, Anne. While Bluebeard, sword in hand, tried to break down the door, the sisters waited for their two brothers to arrive. At the last moment, as Bluebeard was about to deliver the fatal blow, the brothers broke into the castle, and as he attempted to flee, they killed him. He left no heirs but his wife, who inherited all his great fortune. She used part of it for a dowry to marry her sister to the one that loved her, another part for her brothers' captains commissions, and the rest to marry a worthy gentleman who made her forget her ill treatment by Bluebeard."
The Outline that I'm Planning to Obey
- Symbolism in Opera
- "Bluebeard" story and psychological analysis about the story
- Motives that symbolizes the characters
- Motives that symbolizes concepts like "Fate"
- Chordal usage
- Transformation or changes of motives or harmonic patterns between each other
- Scene design