From 1892 to 1895, Antonín Dvořák lived and worked in the USA. It was in America that he wrote his New World symphony and the Cello Concerto in B Minor which became two of his most popular works. The Cello Concerto was created in 1895 and was performed to staggering success following Dvořák’s return to Prague. The extremely complex cello solo role was played by the outstanding Czech cellist Hanuš Wihan, after whom the International Cellists’ Competition in Prague is named. The composer himself wrote of his work: “This concerto has significantly surpassed both of my other concerti, for both the violin and the piano. Do not be surprised that I myself am speaking of this – one can never rest on one’s own laurels – but I can tell you that this work brings me the most immense pleasure, and, I believe, I am not wrong in this estimation.” And in actual fact, Dvořák was not wrong in his estimation, the concerto today being a veritable pearl in the classical repertoires of the world’s finest cellists. According to the laws of the genre, there are three movements in the concerto, two fast movements framing the slow, dramatic Adagio. The composer links the movements through the translucent dramatic development. The introductory theme which opens and ends the concerto forms the melodic and rhythmic impulse from which the other themes emerge. In the cello part Dvořák underscores the vocal nature of the instrument, which has the full range of registers of the human voice at its disposal. The soloist is like a rhapsodist‑narrator, telling of stormy, dramatic and, at times, tragic events. Legend has it that on hearing Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, the renowned Johannes Brahms in his twilight years cried out: “Why, oh why didn’t I know that a cello concerto such as that cold be written? I would have written it long ago!” Despite the fact that the concerto was composed in America, the music is filled with songful Slavic intonations so close to Dvořák and elements of the folk music of Bohemia, served up and presented in a colourful, romantic form. As one of the composer’s biographers wrote, “In this music one can hear the nostalgic voice of a true Czech.”
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.