Béla Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle

The best-known modern variation on the Bluebeard theme based on an ancient legend is no doubt Chaplin’s film Monsieur Verdoux (1947). Monsieur Verdoux is a bank clerk who loses his job during the great depression of the 1930s. He, therefore, decides to set up in business and to develop an idea founded on his personal attraction: he worms his way into the favour of wealthy widows, has their property transferred to his name and then gets rid of them. Practical, if not altogether profitable, as he is to discover.

Chaplin’s ”murder comedy” was inspired by the madness of the world war that had only just ended. Which is worse in the moral sense, murdering a few people or waging a war in which people are legally slaughtered by the thousands? Modern literature drew the theme of Bluebeard from the Histoires et Contes du Temps passé avec des moralités (1697) of Charles Perrault. This is a story about a knight who brings his young bride to his castle, gives her a bunch of keys and permission to open all the doors except one. Needless to say, the young wife opens the forbidden door as well, and behind it finds the heads of Bluebeard’s previous wives. She is rescued from a similar fate at the very last moment as her brothers, who have had their doubts about their sister’s husband, rush to her assistance and deal the Duke his death blow.

Bartók’s one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle (Op.  11, 1911) is based on a mystery play published by Béla Balazs in 1910. Balazs, a poet, scriptwriter, and film critic, was a member of the intellectual Budapest circles at the beginning of the century. He took part in the Communist attempt to seize power in 1919 and when it failed was forced to flee the country. He later became famous for his books Der sichtbare Mensch (1924) and Der Geist des Films (1930) dealing with the theory of visual culture and film. Bartók’s ballet The Wooden Prince (1914–16) is also based on a text by Balazs.

The main source for Balazs’s Bluebeard is Perrault’s morality play, but it also draws on medieval mystery plays and the symbolistic drama Ariane et Barbe-Bleue by Maurice Maeterlinck, which was turned into an opera in 1907 by Paul Dukas.

Chaplin chose to give his tale a historical setting, the great depression, as an explanation for why Monsieur Verdoux embarked on his gruesome career. By contrast, Balazs’s work gives no indication of the time or place. The story is set in a gloomy castle sometime in the mythical past. The Goncourt writer Yann Queffélec has, in his biography of Bartók (1981), admittedly pointed out that the description of the castle is evocative of the sets for a horror film; the imagination has no difficulty associating it with Transylvania, home to vampires.

The story proceeds like a medieval mystery play as a series of dialogues. In the first scene, Bluebeard arrives at the castle with his young wife, Judith. They enter through a little iron door up some steep steps to a magnificent circular hall, around which seven closed doors can just about be made out. Bluebeard tells Judith she can still reconsider her decision, but she refuses, despite the rumours she has heard that Bluebeard has murdered his former wives. The reader gets the impression that Judith is not only in love with her master but appears to be under his spell.

Once Judith has made her decision, there is no going back. The little iron door closes with a creak. The gloomy castle, the dripping walls, and the seven closed doors give Judith the creeps, and she cannot help wondering what is behind them.

Seven is the number of fairy-tales. It also occupied an important role in the medieval tales of chivalry and in the magic tales of later times. Here it refers to what was hinted at in the prologue to the opera: where is the stage, outside or inside? The listener realises that the castle is a symbol, not a real building; it is a dwelling occupied by the mind and its seven closed doors hide the murky secret of Bluebeard’s personality. A real castle might well have a torture chamber, an armoury, and a jewel house, but not a garden full of flowers dripping blood or a lake of tears. Remember that this was the heyday of psychoanalysis. The rooms are symbols; their content reveals the subconscious motives of Bluebeard’s deeds: cruelty, lust for power, greed, but also a longing for beauty, a desire to achieve something great, and ultimately an inability to love.

Bluebeard insists that Judith must trust him and that she must not find out what lies behind the doors. Like Lohengrin, eager to protect Elsa from the pain of knowing:

Nie sollst Du mich befragen
noch Wissens Sorge tragen,
woher ich kam der Fahrt,
noch wie mein Nam’ und Art!

Bluebeard tries to protect his secret but cannot stop himself from giving Judith the keys to the locked doors, just as Lohengrin could nor resist answering Elsa if, despite her promise, she were to ask his name. The knight oft he Grail could only live among humans in disguise; if his identity were revealed, a swan would come and take him away. There is no escape for Bluebeard. As Judith opens the last of the doors and reveals his terrible secret, darkness once again engulfs the castle.

Balazs wrote his text in an old Hungarian eight-foot poetic metre to which Bartók’s vocal melody closely adheres. The melodic style, parlando rubato, has its origins in the folk music Banók had come across a few years before while travelling with Kodály in the remote regions of Hungary. On the other hand, it also bears echoes of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande, the Sprechgesang of which was, as Barrók had noted, strangely akin to the recitative style of Hungarian folk music. The focus in this music is not, however, on the vocal melody as it was in the 19th-century number opera, for the real drama lies in the orchestra, with which the vocal melody merges to form a homogeneous, rich and evocative texture.

Each scene of the opera is like a tableau. What Judith sees on opening the doors is conjured up before the listener’s eyes in characteristic motifs and almost visual orchestration. Meanwhile, the orchestra also illustrates the states of mind and psychological development of Bluebeard and Judith. The scene and its impact are interwoven and reflected in the structure of the music.

The blood-red door, like a gash on the wall, to the torture chamber (1) opens noiselessly. Piercing seconds cut the air like a knife, and the arching scales on the woodwind and xylophone are like the lash of a whip. The first wound is inflicted on Judith’s heart. As the door to the armoury (2) opens, a trumpet fanfare resounds as if to proclaim Bluebeard’s success in battle. The jewel house (3) gleams and glitters with superimposed major chords in a bitonal light, and in the enchanted garden (4) the horn and woodwinds weave garlands of flowers dripping with blood. The next door (5) opens on the vista of Bluebeard’s domain in a burst of C major on the entire orchestra. This is the high point of the opera, and from then onwards the symphonic span begins its descent to the nocturnal f sharp minor again.

Two more doors to go. Judith becomes increasingly frenzied in her demands for them to be opened. And Bluebeard is forced to give in. The sixth door opens onto a lake of still, white water made of tears. The orchestral description of the lake of tears is one of the most enchanting episodes in all Bartók. The key is A minor, and the tremolo strings provide a shimmering backdrop for soaring arpeggios on the flute, clarinet, harps, and celesta. Dropping into this still sheet of water are tears associated with the timbre of the oboe, cor anglais, and bassoon, first a minor second, then a tritone. The water quivers, its surface shattered by three circles.

The drama is working up to the climax. On no account may the last door (7) be opened. Judith asks Bluebeard if he really loves her. The strings give full voice to his deliciously gloomy love theme, and it looks as if Judith is going to give in. But all of a sudden she is seized by a fit of jealousy. Who were her predecessors? She demands that the last door be opened, too.

Out step Bluebeard’s three ex-wives in all their splendour, wearing crowns and laden with jewels. Bluebeard now crowns Judith as well, the most beautiful of all his wives. The door closes behind her. The castle is once again engulfed in eternal darkness.

(Helsinki Festival Programme Booklet 6.9.1998)

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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