The story of Duke Bluebeard, the perfidious and cruel seducer who killed his wives, is one of the oldest European myths, along with the story of Don Juan. One can debate whether the historical prototype for Bluebeard was the French Marshal Gilles de Rais, a companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc who was executed in 1440, and whether he he did actually have a blue beard (in those days beardless people who shaved "to the blue" – i.e.very closely – were called "bluebeards"), but thanks to Charles Perrault´s fairytale, written in 1697, the image of the cruel duke became quite popular with writers and composers. In 1901 the celebrated symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck offered his own interpretation of the theme in "Ariana et Barbe-Bleue", and on the basis of this play the Hungarian author Bela Balazs wrote the libretto for an opera, which was used by the composer Bela Bartok. Besides the enigmatic, mystic theme, Bartok also incorporated the national character of Balazs´s verses – the libretto´s eight-line stanzas go back to traditional Szek ballads. "Bluebeard´s Castle", Bartok´s only opera, was written between March and October 1911, and was initially rejected by the official jury of the National Theatre in Budapest. Its premiere took place at the Budapest Opera only seven years later, on 24 May 1918, and aroused enormous interest. Bartok´s friend and fellow-composer Zoltan Kodaly wrote: "His (Bartok´s) recent opponents should willy-nilly recognise the richness of his fantasy, the originality of his orchestration, the harmony of colours and themes, the integrity of his thinking [...] Bartok´s music is marked by profound sociability, directness and the very height of culture. It stands before us as a single concentrated whole, and bears virtually no trace of borrowing or imitation".
The action of the opera is constructed on the dialogues between the Duke and his young wife Judith, who entreats him to reveal to her the secrets of the seven doors in the castle. Seven symphonic tableaux, each of which illustrates the Duke´s crimes, portray sombre visions. The seven musical episodes are striking for the pictorial power of the orchestra and the visibility of the musical images: I – a torture chamber with chains and hooks, II – an armoury with traces of blood, III – a storeroom with gold, IV – flowering gardens and lilies in blood, V – boundless meadows and mountains, VI – a crystal lake of tears, VII – the abode of the imprisoned wives. In the finale Judith goes through the seventh door, and all the life in her perishes under the weight of the crown and the jewels placed on her by the Duke. All around is dark and gloomy. The Duke disappears in the black darkness.
The music of the opera is very colourful and expressive, which makes it ideal for a concert performance. With the use of orchestral timbres and expressive intonations based on Hungarian folk tunes, Bartok subtly demonstrates the emotional state of the characters. The music loosely follows the subtle nuances of the poetic text.
"Bluebeard´s Castle" can be interpreted in various ways: one can see in it social pathos, a symbolic reflection of the disasters and wars of the early 20th century. However, it is probably more correct in relation to this work to speak of the shady aspects and dark abysses of the human character. In this respect Bartok´s opera is the start of a direct road to the future psychoanalytical research and to many musical and literary masterpieces of the 20th, and also 21st, century.
"When time erases the resplendent trace of the greatest pianist who ever lived, it will record in its golden fund the name of the liberator of orchestral music", wrote the French composer Camille Saint-Saens about Ferenc Liszt. Striving to make music reflect poetic and pictorial images as vividly as possible is one of the integral features of Liszt´s work. It is no coincidence that the honour of creating the "symphonic poem" as a musical genre was his. The composer wrote a total of 13 symphonic poems, inspired by various literary and pictorial sources but with a common ideological spirit – the coming into being of an heroic individual. Liszt´s ideas are always interesting and original: he does not illustrate literary themes with music, but offers his own original interpretations of images in world literature. The symphonic poem "Preludes" is one of the most brilliant and best-known of Liszt´s works. It was originally planned in 1844 as an overture to four male voice chorales on the text of "Four Elements" ("Earth", "Winds", "Waves" and "Stars") by the French poet Joseph Autran, but a decade later Liszt fundamentally changed the programme, turning to the verses of one of his favourite poets, Alphonse de Lamartine. This poetic opus is constructed on a free succession of tableaux from nature that arouse painful meditations on human life. In the original version of the programme, Liszt related the literary source in detail with poetry quotes, but the final version was shorter, intensifying the heroic moments: "Is our life not a series of preludes to an unknown hymn, of which death will play the first solemn note? Love is a wonderful dawn for every heart; but in whose life has the first bliss of happiness not been destroyed by the outbreak of a storm, whose enchanting illusions have not been shattered by its stern breath, whose altar has not been smashed by lethal lightning? And whose soul has not sought – after such upheavals – the peace and quiet of country life, in an effort to erase memories? But man cannot abandon himself to blissful peace in the bosom of nature for long, however captivating it may be at first, and as soon as the trumpet call to battle rings out, he hurries as if he has been called to war, into the ranks of the fighting men, to his dangerous post, in order to experience full self-consciousness in battle once again and to restore his powers entirely".
"I was commissioned to write Daphnis and Chloe, a choreographic symphony in three movements, by Sergei Diaghilev, Director of the Russian Ballet", wrote Maurice Ravel in his autobiography. "The choreography is by Mikhail Fokine, the ballet-master of the celebrated company. In this composition I thought of creating a large musical fresco, in which I attempted not so much to recreate authentic antiquity as to record the Hellenes of my dreams, close to the concept of Ancient Greece evident in the works of late 18th century French artists and writers. The piece is constructed along symphonic lines, according to a strict overall plan on several themes, whose development achieves the unity of the whole. Begun in 1907, Daphnis has been reworked several times, especially the finale. The first production was staged by the Russian Ballet. It is now included in the repertoire at L´Opera". Staged in 1912 by the Russian ballet-master Mikhail Fokine, Daphnis and Chloe was the fruit of the brilliant co-operation between Maurice Ravel and the "Russian Seasons" company under Sergei Diaghilev. Free of any specific ballet genre but extremely flexible, the sumptuous and colourful music of Daphnis and Chloe was just what the Russian ballet innovators had requested.. "Total freedom in the choice of musical forms, measures, rhythms and the length of the separate movements" – Ravel produced in his masterpiece exactly what Fokine had demanded. The libretto of Daphnis and Chloe is based on the themes of a mythological novel about a young shepherd and shepherdess by the Ancient Greek writer Longus (c. 3rd century AD). The outline of the plot is quite straightforward: the young shepherd Daphnis and the young shepherdess Chloe love each other. Their wedding is already not far away when the beautiful shepherdess is abducted by pirates. Daphnis is inconsolable; taking pity on him, Pan – the god of fertility and protector of shepherds – decides to help the unfortunate young man. He wrenches Chloe from the pirates´ clutches and returns her to her despairing fiance; the ballet ends with dazzling festivities: the shepherds and shepherdesses sing the praises of the god Pan.
Ravel wrote two symphonic suites based on the ballet music. The second of these, based on the third and final scene of the ballet, is especially popular. It opens with the majestic "Sunrise": the enemy forces are vanquished; the dawn of a new day and the awakening of nature are in harmony with the emotions of the characters. From silence and slight rustlings, conveying the mood of the hour before dawn, the music grows into a majestic hymn to love and light.