The wooden prince, op. 13.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945) had his first stage work, Blue Beard's Castle, rejected by the non-too enlightened authorities as unplayable. Bartók was then having to face up to the failure of the New Hungarian Music Association, set up for the authentic performance of modern Hungarian music and its propagation. He was also defending himself from hostile critics, some of whom attacked his music for its lack of patriotic values. It took another work by the librettist of Bluebeard, Béla Balázs, to shake and inspire Bartók out of his creative crisis. The Wooden Prince first appeared in writing in the seminal journal Nyugat (Occident) in 1912, and Balázs later reported that it was Bartók who asked him to write a new libretto. The composer began work in April 1914 on what was to become a ballet. Let us look at the work's subject matter. In the early morning night, the Princess leaves her castle and begins playing in the depths of the forest without a care. The Prince from a neighbouring castle sets off on his way to see the world. A Fairy orders the Princess back home and thus prevents the two young people from becoming acquainted. However, the Prince espies the Princess through the window and falls in love. At the Fairy's command, the forest comes alive and streams leap from their courses in an effort to obstruct the Prince from reaching the Princess. Luckily, the Prince overcomes all before him. To meet the girl, he makes a doll, which he ornaments with royal decorations: he uses this wooden prince to tempt the Princess from her castle. The Princess does not deign to notice the true Prince, and instead heads for the wooden doll, and the Fairy commands it to dance with her. The unhappy Prince obtains some consolation, when the Fairy crowns him with flowers. The wooden prince begins to move with increasing clumsiness, and finally become a lifeless piece of wood again. The true Prince now turns from the Princess, who is also prevented by the animate forest from following. Obstructed by the undergrowth, in desperation and shame, the throws away her royal jewels and cuts off her hair. The Prince then draws her towards him and they set off together, while all around nature dies always into silence. Bartók's music divides the action into three main sections. Bartók wrote the following: “The first section stretches to the end of the of the Princess” dance with the wooden doll. The second, which is far more relaxed than the first, is a typical middle movement, and lasts until the wooden doll appears once again. The third section is a repeat of the first, but in inverted order, as naturally demanded by the text.” The large symmetrical form – one of the central organising thoughts of Bartók's oeuvre – presents this archetypal story as a kind of turn-of-the-century meditation on the conflict between man and woman. The Prince is a participant of the initiation ceremony directed by the Fairy. The young man abandons his accustomed environment, and tries his hand at the profane life (in the wood-labyrinth), which makes him worthy for transubstantiation. The central event of the initiation ceremony, the exceeding of borders of human life, is manifested in metamorphosis: the wooden doll and the coronation with flowers, carry an animistic and apotheosis-like aspect of transition. The Prince then abandons the arena of mystery and returns to his accustomed environment where as a reward for his initiation, he wins his love. Naturally we must take notice that the Princess is undergoing a parallel initiation. In this respect – to which the scholar Tibor Tallián has drawn attention – the Bartók/Balázs dramaturgy is reminiscent of the Tamino and Pamina story from Mozart's Magic Flute. With its almost Wagnerian approach to nature, its grotesqueries with the wooden doll, as well as evident folksong style melodies (dance of the stream, the carving of the stick) the Wooden Prince certainly recalls the National Art Nouveau movement in Hungary of the early 1900s. The Wooden Prince was premiered in 1917 at the Opera House, conducted by Egisto Tango. The set design was by Miklós Bánffy and direction by Béla Balázs. Later, Bartók organised a Suite and a Little Suite from the ballet material for concert performance.