Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta / Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle

The standard opening to any fairy tale—“Once upon a time”—performs a wonderfully paradoxical function. The words are both generic and specific, applying to all time yet somehow inviting one particular reader to imagine the details of the realm in which the allegorical tale will unfold. And it is this unique dual function that has guaranteed the genre’s longevity, inviting any reader or audience member, from cradle to grave, to find the pantomimic or the profound in its pages.

During the 19th century, fairy tales enjoyed a renaissance thanks to figures such as the Brothers Grimm in Germany and Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, whose new perspectives on these stories provided lyric contrast to the vicissitudes of the Industrial Revolution. As lives were filled with smoke and steam, the mist and magic of tales handed down from the Middle Ages via the high baroque language of 17th-century French author Charles Perrault to the crepuscular never-land of the German forest provided requisite escape. Even if the nursery was but a distant memory to the reader, the idea that, like Hansel and Gretel, one could dodge drudgery and slip into a world of sandmen and sleeping beauties held great appeal.

Given their ubiquity, however, these stories also became the focus of new types of study. They were questioned, subverted, and, through the work of psychoanalysts and symbolists, revealed, as arch-Freudian Bruno Bettleheim wrote in The Uses of Enchantment, to be “a magic mirror which reflects some aspects of our inner world and of the steps required by our evolution from immaturity to maturity.” In short, as a classless reader emerged, thanks to liberal education systems, newly established democracies, and mass culture, the world’s most enduring stories found fresh audiences and revelatory interpretations.

Opera likewise gained a more universal following during the 19th century. Formerly the preserve of court and aristocracy, just as with Perrault’s seminal 1697 Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé (Stories or Tales from Past Times), the lyric stage became a more democratic forum, with issues of nation states often mirrored beneath the proscenium arch, as were events from the daily lives of the people, found in both the works of the verismo school in Italy and its boldest predecessor, Bizet’s 1875 masterpiece Carmen. Almost immediately after that opera’s premiere, the Russian composer Tchaikovsky acquired a copy of the vocal score; by the following year, he had traveled to Paris to hear the opera live.

“Never before had a work of contemporary music so captivated our composer,” his brother Modest recalled. “From this moment on, it was easy to predict that for the subject of his next opera, Pyotr Ilyich would not choose a story about kings or gods or cardboard boyars, but something as close to life and as close to us as the sad story of Don José’s love.” And yet, despite Modest’s claims, his brother was just as drawn to the escapism of fairy tales as he was to the type of onstage realism that was its seeming antipode. Indeed, Tchaikovsky brought an inspired level of spiritual insight to fairy tales, gleaned from his own experience, while for the lives of figures such as Tatiana in his Eugene Onegin, he fashioned an intense brand of escapist lyricism.

The complementary nature of Tchaikovsky’s approach is no more apparent than in the double bill with which he, unknowingly, closed his operatic and balletic careers. Following the successful 1890 premiere of his ballet The Sleeping Beauty, based on Perrault’s fairy tale, and its much darker successor, the opera The Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky was starved for inspiration. And yet the directors of the Imperial Theatres in Russia insisted on another hit, demanding not one but two new works: an opera and a ballet. Choreographer Marius Petipa, Tchaikovsky’s esteemed collaborator on The Sleeping Beauty, chose the topic for the ballet, an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fantastical The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, drawn from the Brothers Grimm, while Tchaikovsky was able to select the scenario for the opera, picking Hans Christian Andersen’s compatriot Henrik Hertz’s fairy-tale play King René’s Daughter.

Although Tchaikovsky complained that his energy was waning, he took to the operatic half of the project with much greater verve than the ballet—surprising given the popularity of The Nutcracker today—and yet it is easy to perceive why this composer, of all people, would have been drawn to a tale of a blind princess granted the freedom of sight through love. Personal identification with his protagonists, however mythic, was key to Tchaikovsky’s inspiration, not least given the gay composer’s disappointments in matters of the heart. And it was this sense of kinship that can be felt in every chromatic turn of his scores, revealing a much richer consciousness than would have ever been imagined of such tales. Significant, too, is the conclusion to Iolanta, for while many of the composer’s dramatic works, like his symphonies, end in tragedy, Tchaikovsky was clearly attracted to the utopian idea of a happy ending, already witnessed in both The Sleeping Beauty and its contemporary, the Fifth Symphony.

Unlike those predecessors, however, there is a gentility, even inwardness, to Iolanta, leading one critic to describe it as Tchaikovsky’s “spiritual property.” There is certainly a rarefied quality to much of its music. At first, this proves relatively static, backward-looking in its reliance on standalone arias. But if, at the outset, such rigidity reflects Iolanta’s largely unsensual world, then the second half becomes much more fluid. Throughout, the heroine’s voice is Tchaikovsky’s own, characterized by the composer’s distinct melancholy, with its slowly morphing harmonies and dolorous solos, including for the English horn. Vaudémont strikes a more ardent note, yet his music emerges from that of Iolanta, suggesting a kindred spirit—rare in Tchaikovsky’s output. Encouraging her, the knight becomes more confident in his assurances, with strings enriching the serenade-like timbre of his harp accompaniment. While Iolanta claims that she does not need the light, it soon begins to permeate every bar and will, in the score’s final choral splendor, fill her world. How different, then, from the shadowy conclusion to Belá Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

Bartók began the project, his sole opera, in 1911, working from a libretto by Béla Balázs. Adapting a particular violent story from Perrault’s collection—now often omitted from modern editions—Balázs, a leading intellectual in Budapest circles, had created a new, psychological rendering of the tale. He removed the happy conclusion, in which Judith is saved from the castle by her brothers and, employing Hungarian folk idiom, turned his focus to the strange relationship between Judith and her husband. “My ballad is the ballad of the inner life,” the poet explained. “Bluebeard’s castle is not a real castle of stone. The castle is his soul. It is lonely, dark and secretive: the castle of closed doors.”

In his score, Bartók likewise presented an inner life, not only pumping musical blood into the veins of the two characters but also presenting a précis of his maturation as a composer. Eleven years old when Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta first came to the stage, Bartók came of age at the turn of the 20th century. His musical education had begun through his parents’ performances at home, as well as by his own exploration of works by Brahms and Schumann. But in travelling from what is now the borderland between Hungary and Romania to the former’s newly established capital of Budapest, Bartók discovered much richer musical landscapes.

Attending the city’s Academy, he not only encountered the music of Richard Strauss but also that of Debussy, thanks to his meeting with the man who was to be his colleague and companion, Zoltán Kodály, in 1905. Such diverse musical seams fused in the works that Bartók began both to create and to notate. For having announced in 1904 that he would “collect the finest Hungarian folksongs and […] raise them, adding the best possible piano accompaniments, to the level of art song,” his encounter with Kodály made that ambition a reality. Working in collaboration, they were prolific in their collecting activities and the music they discovered came to infuse their work. But what is so remarkable about Bartók’s output is not its ability to reflect diverse influences but to sublimate the strands into one, as is clear in Bluebeard’s Castle.

Progress with the score was slow. With it, Bartók had hoped to win the Ferenc Erkel Prize in 1911, but he failed both in this and in a 1912 competition run by music publishers Rózsavölgyi, with one judge deeming the work impossible to stage and another thinking it far too dark. Bartók was devastated, but when, after World War I, the opera was finally mounted in Budapest, he refuted the claims of that first judge. Given the incontrovertibly pessimistic nature of Bluebeard’s Castle, however, the second judge’s objection is more understandable.

As musical drama, Bartók’s only opera offers a decidedly bleak resolution to the oppositions at its core: Judith vs. Bluebeard, light vs. dark, sanity vs. madness, tonality vs. atonality. These tensions are immediately apparent as the ambiguous spoken prologue trails into silence and the score begins, low down in the orchestra’s register. Its music revolves around a penumbrous F-sharp chord, spelled out in folksy, pentatonic terms. Quickly, the woodwinds cut across this dark but sonorous sound, centering instead on a triad of C major. The clash between these elements spells out the interval of a tritone, the middle point in the chromatic scale or, rather, the polar opposite of the very first note we heard.

Such a dichotomy is seemingly resolved at the blinding opening of the fifth of the seven doors in Bluebeard’s castle. Accompanied by full orchestra (including an organ), Judith screams in amazement at the vastness of the kingdom she can see beyond, the music resounding with the luminescence of C major. But as with every door that she unlocks, there follows a shudder, a strange, angular scale, couched in the same sound-world as the clashing semitone that represents the blood covering everything in sight. Once more, Bluebeard coolly thanks Judith for bringing daylight into the castle, but when, inevitably, she unlocks the last door of his soul, following her forebears into that final room, the music returns to Bluebeard’s dark, modal sound-world. The light from the fifth room, as well as that granted to Iolanta and so many other figures in the “happily ever after,” has been extinguished. Instead, we are taken back to the primordial “Once upon a time” that is, thanks to the psychologically acute music of figures such as Tchaikovsky and Bartók, no longer the herald of pasteboard pantomime but the clarion call of eternity.


—Gavin Plumley