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Béla Bartók - Cantata Profana, I

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Published on Dec 4, 2009

Cantata profana, for tenor, baritone, double chorus & orchestra (or piano) ("The Enchanted Stags"), Sz. 94, BB 100 (1930)

I. There was once an old man (Molto moderato -- Allegro molto)
II. But their father grew impatient (Andante)
III. There was once an old man (Moderato)

John Aler, tenor
John Tomlinson, baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Little is known about the evolution of this powerful cantata. Bartók, an inveterate collector, arranger, and borrower of folk music, based this choral work on a Rumanian folk ballad, and translated the text himself into Hungarian. Many forget that the composer was born in a town in Hungary (Nagyszentmiklos) that is now a part of Rumania. What is unusual about this cantata is that it is unique in Bartók's output, like his only opera Bluebeard's Castle. This is not to suggest a kinship between these two masterful works, because stylistically they are quite far apart.

Cast in three connected movements, Cantata profana is subtitled "The Nine Enchanted Stags." Its text tells of an old man with nine sons whom he only trained in the hunting of stags (male red deer). They depart without him on a hunting expedition one day and are changed into stags. When their father discovers their fate, he asks them to return home with him, but is told by one son their antlers cannot fit through the doorway and that they must remain in the forest.

The first movement, marked Molto moderato, is entitled, "Once there was an old man." After the dark introduction by the orchestra, the chorus enters in a nocturnal haze. The mood remains eerie and mysterious until the powerful middle section, where the choral writing and driving rhythms impart a primal character. The latter part of the opening panel returns to the darker mood of the opening, but now with greater orchestral color and atmosphere.

Marked Andante, the second movement is subtitled, "Through forest aroving, hey-yah!" Tensions stir from the outset, and again, the choral writing is savage and rhythmic. But solo parts for the tenor (son, now a stag) and baritone (father) soon follow, tempering the furious mood somewhat. The long solo for the baritone is darkly atmospheric and features deliciously eerie music from both the chorus and orchestra. The latter part of this panel has both soloists in dramatic and powerful dialogue regarding the return of the nine sons.

The final movement, marked Moderato, is subtitled "Once there was an old man." It opens with a lovely chorus, devoted to summarizing all the details of the story presented in the first two movements. The music is less vehement and features only one brief solo part, for the tenor. On the whole, the mood is reflective and subdued here and might be regarded as a sort of epilogue. This is the shortest of the three sections, lasting about three minutes, as compared with the approximately eight-minute lengths of the previous movements. While this work has folk origins, its music generally does not divulge any ethnic flavors, though the tenor solos often exhibit a certain Rumanian melodic characteristic, the so-called hora lunga. Cantata profana resembles the style of the second movement of Bartók's then-contemporary Second Piano Concerto (1930 - 1931) and parts of the Miraculous Mandarin (1919), as well. [allmusic.com]

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