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Bluebeard's Castle

Written in 1911, Bartók’s only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, was one of three stage works he composed in the 1910s, all with psychologically dark subject matter.

Béla Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania), on March 25, 1881, and died in New York City on September 26, 1945. He composed Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (A Kékszákállú herceg vára) in 1911 to a libretto by Béla Balázs. The score is dated “Rákoskeresztur, 1911. szeptember,” and the dedication reads “Mártának,” “to Márta,” the composer’s first wife. Egisto Tango conducted the first performance on May 24, 1918, at the Royal Hungarian Opera House; Oszkár Kálmán was Bluebeard, Olga Haselbeck was Judith, Imre Palló spoke the Prologue, and Dezsö Zádor was the stage director.

The score of Bluebeard’s Castle calls for baritone (Bluebeard), soprano (Judith), speaker (Prologue), and an orchestra of 4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons (4th doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, tam-tam, cymbals, suspended cymbal, xylophone, triangle, two harps, celesta, organ, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). In addition, staged performances call for 4 trumpets and 4 trombones onstage. The opera is about an hour long.


Bartók composed his only opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, in 1911, and even before its rejection in a national competition, he knew that chances for its performance were slim. With his compatriot Zoltán Kodály, he had years earlier faced the difficulty of being recognized as a composer in Budapest. “With the Hungarian oxen—that is to say, the Hungarian public, I shall not bother any more,” he wrote his mother in 1907. “Kodály rightly says that ‘pheasant isn’t for asses; if we cram them with it, it will make them sick.’ So let’s leave these asses alone and take our serious production to foreign countries.” Even when his music began to be published, Bartók did not aim at a home market: in 1909, the Bagatelles and Ten Easy Pieces for piano and the First String Quartet were printed in Budapest by Rósavölgyi. They gradually became known outside Hungary—few copies were sold within the country—but composer and publisher were content to recognize interest abroad.

Of course, Bartók was not about to leave his native land. Together with Kodály he had already begun the studies of Hungarian folk music that would have such a profound effect upon his own compositional style and remain a continuing interest through­out his life. In 1907 he accepted an appointment to the Academy of Music in Buda­pest, teaching not composition, since he was sure that devoting energy to the teaching of composition would adversely affect his own efforts as a composer, but piano. His tenure would last some thirty years and remain a principal means of support. Very early on, it offered something more: in 1909 he married the 16-year-old Márta Ziegler, who had entered his piano class two years earlier, to whom several of his compositions, including Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, would be dedicated, and with whom he would remain until their divorce in 1923, when he would marry Ditta Pásztory, who had become a piano student of his a year or so before.

In 1911, the year Bluebeard was composed and rejected, Bartók and Kodály founded the New Hungarian Music Society as an outlet for their own music and that of their contemporaries; but, for lack of interest and support, the project soon proved a failure. Despite concerts on their behalf by the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet, formed two years earlier by friends of the two composers, and which in March 1910 gave the first concerts devoted to their music, there was still no headway to be made in their own country. In 1912 Bartók withdrew from public musical life, keeping his position at the Academy but otherwise devoting himself to his ethnomusicological studies. That year he wrote his Four Pieces for orchestra (though they remained unorchestrated until 1921), and it was not until 1916 that he would complete another large-scale orchestral work. This was The Wooden Prince, a one-act ballet begun in 1914 and, like Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, based upon a libretto by the Hungarian poet-novelist-dramatist Béla Balázs.

Bartók had specific reason for attempting another stage work. He was still hoping to see Duke Bluebeard’s Castle performed, and, all musical considerations aside, he attributed its rejection at least partly to its rather abstract subject matter and lack of stage action. The new Balázs libretto—recommended to Bartók by Balász himself—offered a chance to surmount these problems, as well as a story more clearly related than Blue­beard’s to Hungarian folklore: a prince uses a puppet to attract the attentions of a princess with whom he has fallen in love, only to have a mischievous fairy divert the princess’s attentions from the prince to the puppet. Bartók also had in mind that the ballet and the opera might be performed together in a single evening, the scenery and plot of the one offsetting the prevailing sobriety of the other. The scenario of the ballet won the favorable attention of Miklós Bánffy, intendant of the Royal Hungarian Opera House in Budapest; Balázs himself oversaw stage rehearsals, and in Italian conductor Egisto Tango, who was active at the Budapest Opera from 1913 to 1919, Bartók found an advocate unlike any he had known before. The premiere of The Wooden Prince on May 12, 1917, was a critical and public success, and a bit more than a year later, on May 24, 1918, Tango conducted the first performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle—on a double bill with The Wooden Prince, as the composer had envisioned.


The story of Bluebeard and his wives may be found in the folklore of many lands. It was first printed in Charles Perrault’s 1697 Histoires et contes du temps passé avec des moralités, also known as Tales of Mother Goose, together with such other fairy tales as Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. In the Perrault tale, Bluebeard, leaving home on business, entrusts his new wife with the keys to every room of his mansion, including one chamber which he expressly forbids her to open. In that room she finds the blood-encrusted remains of his former wives. Bluebeard discovers her disloyalty and intends to kill her, but she is rescued by her brothers, who appear at the last moment and kill him. There may have been two real-life antecedents to the Bluebeard story in France: a 6th-century Briton chief known as Comorre the Cursed, and Gilles de Retz, a marshal of France who fought the English alongside Joan of Arc at Orléans and allegedly enticed women and children to his castle, where he used them in “multiple experiments” and/or sacrificed them to the devil; he was hanged and burned in 1440 at Nantes.

A more immediate predecessor to the Balázs/Bartók Bluebeard was Maurice Maeter­linck’s drama Ariane et Barbe-Bleue (1901), conceived as a libretto, set to music by Paul Dukas (of Sorcerer’s Apprentice fame), and premiered in Paris on May 10, 1907. Despite several productions elsewhere, and despite its being recognized as “one of the finest French operas in the Impressionist style,” Dukas’s opera has fallen into neglect.

Balázs’s one-act “mystery play”/libretto brings the story even further into the realm of symbolism and allegory by confining itself to the characters of, and relationship be­tween, the two protagonists, Bluebeard and his latest wife, here called Judith. To begin, a spoken “minstrel’s prologue” (frequently omitted from concert performances but retained in this performance in an English translation) asks the audience to question the meaning of the story, to consider its relevance to the observer. “Where is the stage? Outside or within, Ladies and Gentlemen? … Bitter and joyous are the events around us. But the world’s armies do not determine our fate…. We tell our own tales.” (From the translation by Peter Bartók.)

The speaker recedes into the darkness as the curtain rises. Bluebeard and Judith enter the cold, dark, windowless hall, where Judith will insist upon opening the seven locked doors she discovers there: she has come to him out of love, she will dry the damp, weeping walls, she will warm the cold stone, she will bring light into his castle and so into his life. To do this, she will ignore Bluebeard’s protests, she will ignore the rumors she has heard. At first he tries to discourage her, but in handing over the keys to the third, fourth, and fifth doors, his attitude has changed: “Judit, ne félj, most már mindegy”—“Judith, do not be afraid, it is all the same now.” He even encourages her to open the fourth and fifth doors, though he does try to keep her from the sixth and seventh, finally revealing that behind the last door she will find “all the women of the past.” But by this point the situation is hopeless. Judith’s curiosity has driven her from the general to the particular: “Tell me Bluebeard, whom did you love before me? … Was she more beautiful than I? Was she different? … Open the seventh door! … There are all the past women, murdered, lying in blood. O, the rumors, the whispered rumors are true.” The seventh door is opened, and Bluebeard’s three former wives emerge, still living, the wives of his dawn, his noon, and his evening. Now Judith, his fourth, the bride he found at night, must join them behind the seventh door, leaving Bluebeard in perpetual darkness.

Though there is virtually no stage action, Balázs’s text specifies theatrical effects that contribute to the emotional and psychological drama. When Judith strikes the first door with her fists, “a deep, heavy sigh is heard, like the wind at night in long, low corridors.” When the sixth door is opened, to reveal a lake of tears, “a deep, sobbing sigh is heard,” and a soft sigh accompanies the closing of the fifth and sixth doors as Judith inserts the key into the lock of the seventh.

The opera begins and ends in darkness; light and color play crucial roles. Bluebeard and Judith are first seen in silhouette, “against the dazzling white square” of their entryway. Rays of colored light reflect what Judith discovers behind the first five doors: blood-red for the torture chamber of the first; yellowish-red for the armory of the second; golden for the third-door treasure chamber; bluish-green for the garden behind the fourth; and dazzling, bright light for Bluebeard’s domain, onto which the fifth door opens. With the opening of the sixth door, to reveal the lake of tears, a shadow darkens the hall. From the seventh door there is a ray of silver moonlight, and by the time Judith joins Bluebeard’s three previous wives behind that door, all the others have closed.

But the opera lends itself to concert performance: again, there is no real stage action, and Bartók’s music is so strikingly apt from the standpoints of drama, psychology, and aural imagery that it more than makes up for the absence of staging and lighting.

Desmond Shawe-Taylor has written that the Bluebeard story “can be understood on many levels: as a foreshortened process of mutual discovery between two persons such as in real life would take many years; as a conflict between rational, creative Man and emotional, inspiring, never fully comprehending Woman [!!]; more deeply still, as an allegory of the loneliness and solitude of all human creatures.” With reference to Bartók’s opera, Gy˝orgy Kroó draws parallels to the qualities of man’s soul: the first-door torture chamber represents man’s cruelty, the armory life’s struggles, the treasure chamber spiritual beauty, the garden man’s tenderness, and Bluebeard’s domains man’s pride; behind the final two doors are tears and memories, which are not to be shared. But this is incidental to our appreciation of the music, for it is the music and, at least—unless we are fluent in Hungarian—the projection of the text to which we respond when we hear the opera performed.


Bartók’s opera is thoroughly Hungarian in mood and manner. The composer was determined to create an idiomatically Hungarian work, and he did this by letting the text itself determine the flow of his music, working in the so-called “parlando rubato” style (“flexible speech-rhythm”) that he arrived at through his studies of Hungarian folk music. The Budapest-born American musicologist Paul Henry Lang wrote that due to the nature of the Hungarian language, Bluebeard cannot be successfully sung in translation, because “the foreign words’ rhythms and accents are constantly at odds with the music.”

As to the music itself, we are in an impressionistic world where the orchestra unerringly supports the mood, imagery, and language of the text. In the opening measures, Bartók sets out the crucial musical intervals, fourths and seconds, which fix in our ears the modal quality of his music. With the first entry of oboes and clarinets we hear a melodically stated minor second, which, in its dissonant vertical formulation, is the pervasive “blood-motif” of the opera, sounding with increasingly insistent intensity as Judith discovers the extent to which blood has tainted Bluebeard’s possessions, and piercing through the crescendo and crashing discord that accompany her final demand that the seventh door be opened. By contrast, there is music of utmost resignation, most tellingly employed when Bluebeard hands over the seventh key.

Striking individual effects abound: shrill outbursts of winds and xylophone over tremolo violins for the first-door torture chamber; martial brass, notably solo trumpet, for the armory; soft trumpet and flute chords, celesta, and then two solo violins for the gleam of the treasure chamber; impressionistic string chords and solo horn for the garden (with momentary suggestions of Wagner and Strauss); an awing and majestic chordal passage for full orchestra and organ for Bluebeard’s domains; hushed, dark-hued arpeggios from celesta, harp, and winds, with timpani undercurrent, for the lake of tears. And, overall, the music mirrors the subtle psychology of Bluebeard’s and Judith’s relationship, echoing and enforcing their changes of mood and attitude, ultimately emphasizing the degree to which they have grown apart. At the end, Bluebeard addresses his former wives “as if in a dream,” virtually heedless of Judith’s presence; and when he adorns her with robe, crown, and necklace, her protestations are distant and hopeless. Finally, when the seventh door closes behind her, the music returns to the ominous texture of the opening; darkness once more envelops the stage.

Marc Mandel

Marc Mandel joined the staff of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1978 and managed the BSO’s program book from 1979 until his retirement as Director of Program Publications in 2020.

The first American performance of Bluebeard’s Castle was given by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Antál Dorati on January 8, 1949. The first staged performance in America, sung in Chester Kallman’s English translation, was given by the New York City Opera on October 2, 1952, with James Pease as Bluebeard, Ann Ayars as Judith, and Joseph Rosenstock conducting.

The first Boston Symphony performances of Bluebeard’s Castle were given (not including the spoken Prologue) by Seiji Ozawa with bass-baritone Gwynne Howell as Bluebeard and mezzo-soprano Yvonne Minton as Judith in November 1980 in Symphony Hall, followed by a performance in Providence.