Sarah M. Lucas

A “Haunting Blend of Sensibility and Violence”: Fritz Reiner’s Interpretations of Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin

Fritz Reiner, who conducted the world premiere of the first concert version of Béla Bartók’s pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin (1924) as “Two Scenes” in 1927 and performed the longer concert suite several times throughout his career, helped Bartók achieve his goal of having the Mandarin music performed as widely as possible, despite elements of the story which had caused the work to be banned in Cologne and Budapest. Reiner’s enthusiasm for The Miraculous Mandarin is evidenced by his programming of the work with each of the orchestras for which he served as music director (the Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Chicago Symphony Orchestras), as well as for multiple high-profile performances as guest conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra and of Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic. His performances of the “Two Scenes” in 1927 are especially important, as they are the only known presentations of the unpublished short concert version of the pantomime, as it was replaced by the “Suite” several months later. Furthermore, Reiner’s 1946 performances with Pittsburgh and NBC seem to have sparked American conductors’ interest in The Miraculous Mandarin. Following these concerts several major American orchestras gave their first performances of the Mandarin “Suite,” including the Philadelphia Orchestra and Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Eugene Ormandy in 1948 and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Richard Burgin’s baton in 1950.

An analysis of Reiner’s annotations to his own copies of various versions of The Miraculous Mandarin, as well as his 1961 recording of the Mandarin “Suite” with the New York Philharmonic, reveals a great deal about the conductor’s creative process as he returned to and revised his interpretations of the work over time. In addition to providing a window into Reiner’s process for learning the work using the piano four hands score and his methods of preparing and conducting difficult passages, it also shows that Reiner may have attempted to put together a later performance of the short concert version, “Two Scenes,” well after the longer concert version was published. Although Reiner’s performances of the concert versions did not inspire riots and bans, Bartók’s music, as well as Menyhért Lengyel’s story upon which the composition was based, continued to be controversial. Reiner’s efforts, as well as the passage of time, which rendered the subject matter and the music less shocking, led to more generous reactions in the American press in the 1960s. Reiner’s continued reconsideration of the concert versions of The Miraculous Mandarin, as demonstrated by his own annotations in his scores over the course of his career, undoubtedly resulted in repeated audience exposure to varied, yet skillfully executed performances of the work, which Bartók considered representative of some of his best orchestral writing.


Drake University, USA

She completed her Ph.D. in musicology at the University of Iowa in 2018. Her dissertation, “Fritz Reiner and the Legacy of Béla Bartók’s Orchestral Music in the United States,” is based on archival research carried out at Northwestern University’s Fritz Reiner Collections, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Rosenthal Archives, Bartók Records, and at the Hungarian Institute for Musicology’s Budapest Bartók Archives, where she conducted research with the support of a Fulbright Award, a Stanley Grant for International Graduate Research, and a University of Iowa Graduate College Summer Fellowship. Her research interests also include 20th century American music criticism, Bartók’s first concert tour of the US, and the use of Bartók’s music in films. She currently teaches music history at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and leads the Des Moines Symphony’s Classical Conversations series.