Bartók wrote this secular cantata as part of a cycle in 1930. We do not know whether the projected cycle would have comprised of three or four parts, since the available evidence is contradictory. Where there is no doubt is that all the works would have drawn from the peasant music of peoples living alongside the river Danube, and that the cycle would proclaim one of Bartók’s most often expressed fundamental ideas: the inter-dependence of the Central East European countries.
The Cantata Profana is the Romanian instalment, although the composer certainly attempted to disguise this. He had good reason: chauvinistic elements in Romanian musical life began to regard his entire ouevre as being a part of Romanian culture. Bartók protested against being named “compositorul roman” (Romanian composer), detailing his reasons in a letter to Octavian Beu – after deciding not to allow the Cantata to be heard in its original language (Romanian). He also had to defend himself from Hungarian nationalism, which he achieved by initially banning its performance in Hungary. For this reason, the Cantata was premiered in London in 1935, and was only heard in his native Hungary the following year (with soloists Endre Rösler and Imre Palló) with the text in Hungarian.
Bartók himself collected the kolindas, the verses that gave him inspiration, before the First World War in the villages of Idicel and Urusiu de Sus. There are still people today in these villages who have fragmented memories of these Christmas songs with their pagan texts. Bartók himself compiled the Cantata’s libretto from both versions of the songs, and it was he who translated them to Hungarian. The verse legend of the young men turned into stags was something that deeply touched Bartók – he even went to the trouble of explaining his feelings in a surviving radio broadcast.
There are few Bartók works which have attracted such a diversity of analysis and interpretation. The myth naturally gives much room for the imagination of scholars. For example the lads’ magical transformation and the dramatic dialogue between father and his oldest son can be seen as the age-old rebellion of youth. The work is an identification with nature, an artistic ars poetica and much else besides. The final sentence (“our mouths do not drink from a glass but from fresh, cool springs”) is itself a symbol for everything that Bartók was aiming for artistically.
There are no specific Romanian motifs among the musical material. Many historians have sought to draw comparison with the opening chorus of the St Matthew Passion in the first section. After the introduction, the metre changes and drums and horns indicate the beginning of the hunting fugue. The hunting scene unexpectedly breaks off when the boys, chasing the stag, come to a bridge, upon which they are magically transformed to stags themselves. (Interestingly, the image of the bridge derives from Bartók’s misunderstanding (perhaps deliberate, perhaps not) of the Romanian original). The central Andante section of the Cantata presents the figure of the father, who is searching for and then finds his sons. After the dialogue between him and his youngest son, the final formal section acts as a kind of summary. Before the work concludes, we again hear the tenor soloist. His melody utilises the notes of the so called acoustic row, in a scale which follows the natural semitones. It is hardly a coincidence that it is the symmetrical inversion of these scale figures that we hear at the very beginning of the work.