Wednesday, 22 October 2014

"Bluebeard´s Castle"-Xylophone.

This month, the Asturias Symphony Orchestra is playing Bela Bartok´s opera "Bluebeard´s Castle". This work features one of the most unusual and difficult xylophone parts in the repertoire, and this article will deal with this particular issue.

The opera starts with a spoken introduccion which leads to seven scenes corresponding to seven rooms. Judith, Bluebeard´s wife, is free to wander through the castle, but she is not allowed to enter one particular room. Moved by curiosity, she cannot help but to enter every room. When she gets to the forbidden one, she opens the door, which means her condemn...

Bartok knew the xylophone very well, as he used it on "The Miraculous Mandarin", "The Wooden Prince", "Music for Strings, Celeste and Percussion", "Sonata fo Two Pianos and Percussion"... But, as Bartok was heavily influenced by popular music (we know him as a pioneer on ethnomusicology), the instrument he associated with the xylophone was the at that time already dated "Strohfidel".


The picture above shows a "Strohfidel" (a "straw fiddle", because the bars layed on straw instead of on a frame with resonators). This is the instrument Bartok was familiar with (and also Richard Strauss, as that´s how he literally names the instrument in several of his works), as it is omnipresent in Hungarian folk music, and it´s closely related to (also from a technical/interpretative point of view) the "dulcimer" or "cymbalon", very popular in Hungary as well (this instrument coming from the Persian "santur"). Bartok knew this instrument so well that when the "Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion" was first rehearsed, Saul Goodman (legendary timpanist for the New York Philharmonic and one of the musicians playing the premiere) was asked by the composer to remove the resonators from his "modern" instrument in order to better suit the sound of the "Strohfidel". 

Cymbalon (CC)

Santur © Afshin Max Sadeghi

Aas an introduction, the history of the "Strohfidel" is not bad, as it was the kind of xylophone Bartok was familiarized with, but this is not the instrument he scored for in "Bluebeard´s Castle"... Before going on, let me show you the music for those infernal excerpts:

You can hear the first fragment from 15:50 onwards, and the second from 37:52 onwards:

As you can see, all lines in the first passage are doubled in octaves, which gives as some clues... We also get some evidences from the three note chords in the second excerpt... Yes: Bartok scored for a keyboard xylophone. This is something we will write about in the future, but many of you (those informed and with knowledge of the repertoire) already know that many of the excerpts we play nowadays with mallets on the glockenspiel were originally scored for keyboard glockenspiel. This is very common with this instrument ("The Sorcerer´s Apprentice", "Magic Flute", "Pines of Rome", "Russian Eastern Festival Overture"...), but no so with the xylophone... We have one of the very rare occasions in which a composer scored for keyboard xylophone. And how does the instrument look like? Thanking Szabolcs Joó, percussionist for the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra for all the information and photos, exactly like this:

© Szabolcs Joó

© Szabolcs Joó

© Szabolcs Joó

© Szabolcs Joó

According to Mr. Joó, this is the precise instrument Bartok got to know. The orchestra of the Hungarian State Opera owned one keyboard xylophone and, while wandering around the theatre during rehearsals, Bartok saw it and decided to score for it in his opera (a typical case in which a composer scores knowing which instruments are available, as it was this orchestra the one which premiered the work). That instrument had very tiny keys, sounded weak as was hard to play, so a better one was built in time for the premiere. The one you can see in the pictures above is the "new" one, the one Bartok himself got to know, and the one used in the very first performance of "Bluebeard´s Castle" (quite impresive, isn´t it?).

Apart from the fact that this instrument is quite damaged (it´s more than one hundred years old), it works the same way as a piano, a keyboard glockenspiel or a celeste but, instead of the hammers hitting strings, metal bars or bells, they hit wooden bars. In fact, the mechanism is identical to that of a piano, the only difference being that hammers are made of hardwood.

What´s the problem? Played on a keyboard xylophone the part is very idiomatic, not hard to play at all (any pianist worth his salt can do it), but played on a "normal" xylophone, with "normal" mallets, it becomes extremely difficult to play... Bartok was not a mediocre, and knew very well what he wanted: he knew both the "Strohfidel" and the modern xylophone, but he also knew that scoring the part for any of these two instruments would make the part virtually imposible to play, so he scored for an instrument that allowed him to play the music in his head and, also, for an instrument he had at hand, "at home", right in the theatre that was about to premiere his opera.

There are serious difficulties if we are to play this part on a modern instrument. First, the octaves: they are impossible to play by a single percussionist (not even Teddy Brown would be able to play that nightmare...). Second: synchrony is very hard when the part is split between two percussioinists playing on two xylophones (the normal practice when no keyboard xylophone is available, which is the usual thing...).

Each job demands the proper tools and, in this case, if we want to play this passage perfectly and easily, a keyboard xylophone played by a pianist is the way to go. If we want things to get hard, nothing better than two percussionists on two xylophones spliting parts.

Well... This hard nut to crack turns up in audition lists quite often, so you better be prepared and practice it just in case. Also, if you want to rent one of these, Tristan Fry (legendary London based percussionist) owns two.

Last thing: the version I own is the one the London Symphony recorded in 1965 with Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry under István Kertész for DECCA.


Wow... Today we got to know a very rare instrument, and it happens to be the one Bartok himself used in the premiere of his "Bluebeard´s Castle". Many thanks to all the members in the "Orchestral Percussion Talk" group for their vast knowledge and their generosity for sharing it.

…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés

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