Hungarian born composer Béla Bartok (1881-1945), is perhaps best known for his cataloging and collecting of traditional Hungarian music, alongside his substantial contribution to the world of piano music, much of which was based on or around the folk music he acquired.
‘The Wooden Prince’ is a piece that contains many elements of Hungarian folk music seamlessly woven into the textures of the music.
It is the timeless story of a Prince who falls spontaneously in love with a flirtatious Princess. As you might anticipate, the Prince tries with every ounce of whit to win the Princess’s heart but is constantly foiled by the magic of an interfering fairy. The Prince, having tried to attract the Princess decides on a brilliant plan that involves him making a wooden image of himself that he can hold high up so the Princess in the castle can see him.
Here is where the problems begin as the Princess falls in love with this wooden prince, not the real one. Ultimately, love prevails and following the Prince’s resignation to a life of solitude, the Princess realizes the Prince she fell in love with is a fake. The couple meets again and falls in love again only to live happily ever after.
The ballet is divided into seven dances as follows;
1. Dance of the Princess;
2. Dance of The Trees;
3. Dance of The Waves;
4. Dance of the Princess with the Wooden Doll;
5. Dance of the collapsing Wooden Doll;
6. The Princess and The Prince, a seductive dance;
7. The Princess and Prince finally are united and nature returns to a balanced state
Each of these dances is unique and incredibly diverse stylistically, like the characters of the Prince and Princess that are folk-like whereas ‘nature’ is distinctly impressionistic with more than a hint of Debussy. They form a structure that Bartók chose to employ in many other later compositions, that of arch form. This structure closely resembles that of the story. At the start of the arch, the key of C major dominates with an insistent F# that colors the opening with uncertainty.
Of the three dances that lead towards the center of the arch, the ‘Dance of The Trees’ for me is the most compelling of the set. Bartók brings the image to life with uneasy scales, tremolos and cold, troubled strings that echo the sound of the wind and the birds. The ‘Dance of the Waves’ brings the three saxophones to the foreground of the score that seems to give a taste of jazz that would seep into the works of so many 20th Century composers.
The Dance of The Wooden Prince is the center of the structure and as such occupies the longest playing time. Bartók creates great drama in this part with clever orchestration that gradually moves towards a sense of abandonment and loss. An alluring Dance of the Princess moves the ballet back towards the end of the arch and the return of the C major opening restoring the tranquillity of nature through the love of the couple.
If you listen to the entire work then take careful note at the point in towards the end where the couple is at last, together. Here is a glorious example of Bartók’s use of Hungarian Folk tune. In this case, one titled ‘Fly, Peacock’ which Bartók also cleverly integrated into his First String Quartet. (1909)
Bartók composed this work during one of many troubled times that he experienced throughout his lifetime. Difficult as it may seem in 2020, Bartók’s music was not readily accepted when he was alive and he faced successive disappointments and setbacks to his ambitions as a composer. This was almost to the point of suicide around the time of the composition of The Wooden Prince. This in itself is in stark juxtaposition to the content and style of the ballet, although there is felt by many critics to be a strong degree of symbolism in the piece. This refers in particular to the idea of the Prince as a symbol for the creative artist who struggles to work and survive amongst tragedy and heart-break; pouring all that he is into his work. This is a powerful image for Bartók in other works that feature their attention on lonely characters who seem to be on an endless quest for love.
1914 was the year in which Bartok decided to compose the pantomime/ballet. The writer Béla Balázs encouraged a depressed Bartók to consider composing a musical pantomime and even though the work was intermittent Bartók was spurred onwards by the prospect of a performance of his work. It still took the composer two arduous years to complete the ballet. As a point of note, it was Béla Balázs who later supplied the text for Bartók’s rather dark opera ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’.
Bartók does not spare the forces in the score for The Wooden Prince. The orchestration is generous including a sparkling variety of percussion, three saxophones, four clarinets plus Eb piccolo and Bb Bass, four French horns and four trumpets, two harps, four flutes plus two piccolos, four oboes and two Cor Anglais, two cornets and three trombones, a tuba, together with an enormous string section. From this extensive array of instruments, it is easy to understand why Bartók described the piece as a ‘symphonic poem for dance’.
There is no doubt that the influence of Stravinsky is felt in this ballet, and many consider The Wooden Prince as an equal to ‘The Rite of Spring’ for its ingenuity and orchestration. Stravinsky’s ‘Petroushka’ (1911), is also likely to have had a profound effect on the young Bartók especially as this work is about a puppet.
The Wooden Prince received its premiere in May of 1917 at the Budapest Opera. Accounts would indicate that the reception of the work was favorable but for reasons perhaps related to the expansive orchestration, the ballet never achieved great popularity. This is a pity given the skill with which the piece was composed together with the sheer enjoyment of seeing it staged. Bartók’s next foray into the world of ballet was in 1926 with ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’.
Unlike The Wooden prince, this ballet gathered approval much quicker and still receives excellent performances today.