One of the courses I took during the first semester of my senior year in college in 1976 convened in the Lily rare books library of Indiana University. The class was a colloquium on 18th century France, and I decided to do my research paper on a collection of French fairy tales from that era. Some of these are still well known and widely read--Barbebleu, La Belle au Bois Dormant, and Blanc Neige. I mean Blubeard, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. The original versions bear little resemblance to the sanitized Disney versions and some of them were quite dark and sinister indeed.
My choice to write about fairy tales reflected the affinity I had toward revolutionary movements. Fairy Tales? Revolutionary? Well frankly, yes. Nowadays we think of children’s books as entertaining, instructional, or as inculcating wholesome values. Back in the 17th and 18 century, however, depending on who wrote them, fairy tales could have political subtexts.
The stories tended to divide into two camps–those that tried to reinforce the social, political and economic systems based on control by the monarchy, and those that tried to paint the aristocracy as diseased and worthy of overthrow. In the first type of stories, you could find a commoner as the main character, but usually through some twist of fate it would turn out that he or she was really a princess or prince who had been separated at birth from parents. That explained the sweet nature. Cinderella is an example of the status quo type of story.
Other writers, however, were busy trying to sew seeds of discord into fertile young minds. These stories painted a picture of the evil, corrupt and decadent aristocracy who needed to be overthrown. Common people figured in these works and even were capable of great good.
Voltaire and Marat would have grown up reading Ma Mere d’Oye (Mother Goose), a collection of stories compiled and retold by Charles Perrault. It was from this collection that Bluebeard came, but it has been pulled from Mother Goose for its violent (and perhaps revolutionary) tone since then.
In Perrault’s version, Bluebeard is a hideously ugly duke with a blue beard. He is so repulsive that all the people in his realm hate him, but he is fantastically rich. There is the rumor that he has murdered previous wives, but no one can touch him because he is a member of the aristocracy. He takes a fancy to two sisters who live nearby and tries to woo them. They rebuff his advances until he throws a party and invites them. The younger of the two is quite smitten by his wealth and the nice festive ball he has thrown and she decides to accept his offer of marriage.
Shortly after they are wed, he has to leave on a trip. He gives her the keys to all the rooms in his castle. He tells her she can open all but one and if she does open that one, she will meet with grave consequences. While he is away, she invites her sister and old friends in. She opens all the doors and find rooms filled with jewels, armor, a secret garden and other riches. While her friends ooh and ahs over the treasures, she wanders off and finds the last room. She opens the door and finds it full of the rotting and decaying bodies of Bluebeard’s former wives, whom he has killed. She drops the key and some of the blood splashes on it and stains it. She tries to clean the key, but to no avail. Bluebeard returns, asks for the keys, and when he discovers the blood, he tells her he has to kill her now. She manages to stall him until her brothers arrive in the nick of time and put the hideous serial killer to death.
The interesting thing about this story is that neither the girl nor her brothers are members of the aristocracy. The tale could be interpreted as a call to action against the feudal practice of droit du seigneur. In those times, the feudal lord or king had the pick of young women in his realm and it was expected that he could sleep with and impregnate the wives of all his noblemen. The noblemen got his protection and shared in his wealth and power, which in a way, they gave to him by accepting this practice. Metaphorically, this story shows how this practice is a kind of psychic murder. It sounds barbarian nowadays, but it must have been an effective evolutionary strategy. Apes and some polygamous religious groups still practice it today. (And we flatter ourselves by thinking we’re not animals.)
The story of Bluebeard seems like an odd choice for an opera. And I wouldn’t necessarily call it a “knee-slapper.” Yet I find it an affecting piece, and it contains some incredibly beautiful and haunting melodies. The Hungarian playwright, Balazs, dedicated his play to Bartok, who then turned it into an opera. The orchestral score shows that by 1918 when he wrote it, Bartok had mastered the new tonalities and rhythms pioneered by Debussy and then refined by Stravinsky. Bartok matches these to the seven parts of the one-act play, one for each door that Bluebeard’s wife, Judith, forces him to open.
The play and opera you see focuses on the scene after the marriage and portrays Judith as forcing Bluebeard to give her the keys so she might open the doors. Behind each door, Balazs puts a scene that represents some part of Bluebeard’s life and the influences that shape his persona. In one, we see his great riches; in another an armory. A third leads to a beautiful garden, and a fourth to an expansive domain. The dark side of Bluebeard’s character are represented by rooms containing a torture chamber and a lake of tears. As Judith persuades Bluebeard to give her each key, he asks her if she still loves him and she assures him she does. This despite the fact that the objects in each room are stained with blood. In one, the walls weep and in another they seep blood.
If you know and love “Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra” written nearly 30 years later, you will be delighted to hear the rich textures and use of instruments to paint vivid sound pictures. He manages to capture the mood and symbolism of each room. For the armory, a trumpet blast gives a suitable martial air. In the treasury, the violins and celeste covey the tinkling and warms of gems and gold. When the door opens to reveal a garden, Bartok waxes pastoral and the door leading to a view of his realm conveys his kingly mightiness. In every scene though, there is a dark undercurrent, which Judith annoyingly points out by noticing the blood stains on every thing.
But these pale in comparison to what you hear when she opens the door to the torture chamber, the lake of tears and the final door. At the points Bartok create a rush of unworldly sound that evokes images of pain and intense mental anguish. There are parts of men’s souls, he seems to be saying, that are too horrid to be allowed to see the light of day.
I sometimes wonder what this play symbolizes. It paints a strange and pessimistic view of male-female relationships. The woman appears as prying-insisting on knowing all the deep dark secrets of her mate. She says his secrets will not disgust her and that that is how they can establish true intimacy. When he gives in and shares his deep dark past, she is repulsed. He is not the man she thought he was.
In Balazs’ libretto, Judith guesses the secret of the seventh door. Behind it she will find his murdered wives, proof that he really is a monster unworthy of her love and she has conquered him. When she opens the final door, however, she sees that his three former wives are still alive. What’s more, they are still beautiful and cloaked in golden robes and bedecked with jewels. Bluebeard sings of how he found them at youth, middle age, and finally as an old man. Each one controls a part of his day, and Judith now will be mistress of the night. He puts a heavy mantle on her and she joins the other wives in the seventh room.
As I said, this opera is probably not the thing you would take a blind date to. Nor even your mother. In fact, I’ve never met anyone else who’s ever heard of it or raved about it. It is a dark piece. But I find it so far ahead of its time.
Think about the times period when it was written. Europe and the Austro-Hungarian Empire is being broken apart by World War I and ethnic conflicts which erupted again in the 1990s. Philosophical religious and psychological beliefs are being transformed and Freud shines a spotlight in on the dark parts of the human mind. Freud pretty much said man is an animal with base desires that must be repressed, and in so doing they give us neuroses. Balazs view is more complex, and even Jungian in nature. That is, we all have these dark sides to our persona, and they need to be integrated and accepted before true healing can take place.
For me, “Bluebeard’s Castle” also represents one of the last listenable pieces of vocal music in the academic tradition before atonality and serialism lay waste to it for the next 50 or so years. After this comes the anti-song works of Schoenberg (Pierrot Lunaire). People have become so disaffected with this stuff and perhaps that explains why so many have gone back to square one and started listening to Gregorian chants again. The pendulum has swung the other way, but now we’re seeing modern composers, like John Tavener, trying to create a fusion of the old and new. People get so upset when one trend dies an a new one takes its place. But these things go in cycles and the much-maligned masses should sometimes be commended for “knowing what they like.”
Download MP3s of Bartok: Bluebeard’s Castle from Amazon