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Béla Bartók - The Wooden Prince, V (1/2)

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Published on May 2, 2011

The Wooden Prince (A fából faragott királyfi), ballet in 1 act for orchestra, Sz. 60, BB 74 (Op. 13), (1914-1917)

I. Introduction (Molto moderato)
II. First Dance: Dance of the Princess in the Forest (Molto moderato)
III. Second Dance: Dance of the Trees (Assai moderato)
IV. Third Dance: Dance of the Waves (Andante)
V. Fourth Dance: Dance of the Princess with the Wooden Prince (Allegro)
VI. Fifth Dance: The Princess Pulls and Tugs at the Wooden Prince and Tries to Make Him Dance (Meno mosso -- subito)
VII. Sixth Dance: She Tries to Attract the Real Prince with Her Seductive Dancing
VIII. Seventh Dance: Dismayed, the Princess Attempts to Hurry after the Prince, but the Forest Bars Her Way (Moderato)

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

While the least successful artistically (and the most difficult to stage) of Bartók's three dramatic works, the ballet The Wooden Prince was nevertheless a great success with the audience at its premiere in Budapest in May 1917. No doubt this was due in part to the happy circumstances under which it was first produced. Unlike many of Bartók's previous works, whose earliest performances had suffered from insufficient preparation, the original production of The Wooden Prince enjoyed the benefit of an unprecedented 30 rehearsals under conductor Egisto Tango.

Much of the problem posed by The Wooden Prince lies with its dramatic component. The story was written by Hungarian dramatist Béla Balász, who had previously supplied the libretto for Bluebeard's Castle (1911). In the ballet, the simple tale of a Prince's attempts to woo and win a reluctant Princess through the use of a broomstick dummy of himself was complicated by Balász's introduction of a Fairy who plays both sides of the game, initially hindering the Prince in his ardor but later taking pity on him and helping him to win the hand of his beloved. The Fairy's almost perverse change of heart seems inexplicable in the rudimentary fairy tale context, and the other characters are entirely one-dimensional, in stark contrast to the deep psychological portraits Balász provided (via Maeterlinck) for Bluebeard's Castle. Further, none of the characters is granted specific identification with a distinctive musical motif, as was notably the case in Bartók's following stage work, the ballet-pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin (1918-1919).

The score calls for one of the largest orchestras Bartók ever summoned, including woodwinds, horns, and trumpets in fours, pairs of saxophones and cornets, and a large complement of tuned and non-pitched percussion. The opening, based on a long-held C major triad, has been compared to that of Wagner's Das Rheingold; fully three minutes elapse before the curtain rises. In The Wooden Prince, Bartók expresses his musical ideas in a unique style of impressionism similar to that which distinguishes the Images, Op. 10 (1910), and the Four Orchestral Pieces, Op. 12 (1912). While the sound world is ravishing, the shape of the piece is somewhat diffuse. Notable exceptions include the billowing music that accompanies the episode in which the Fairy causes the river to rise against the Prince as he seeks the Princess; the grotesque episode when the Fairy enchants the stick figure the Prince has fashioned, causing it to dance, is similarly striking. This music, the most focused in the piece, looks forward to the direction Bartók would take in subsequent decades, while much of the score represents a valedictory for the composer's style up to that point.

Despite subsequent stagings, notably the Cubism-influenced Budapest production of 1935 and that at the Bartók Festival of 1948, The Wooden Prince has not entered the repertory as a stage work; it remains known primarily in the form of a concert suite arranged by the composer in 1921 and expanded in 1931-1932. [allmusic.com]

Art by Asger Jorn

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