Perhaps the most prosaic building block in the grammar of music is the C major chord; it is the root chord of the most basic key. But in the hands of a genius, the simplest materials can be used to create music of astonishing power and beauty. One of the most unforgettable moments in my CSO career involves a C major chord from a performance more than 20 years ago of Béla Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle.
The CSO was performing the opera under the baton of Pierre Boulez, with Jessye Norman singing the role of Judith. The story involves Bluebeard showing Judith, his new bride, around his castle. It is a dark, fearsome place, and every room that Judith explores seems to be tinged with blood. After seeing his torture chamber, his armory, his treasury and his garden, she opens a fifth door, one that finally lets her see outside the claustrophobic castle to the blinding light of his kingdom.
As the door opened that night, the C major chord burst out fortissimo. Jessye Norman pealed a brilliant high C, soaring above the full orchestra, complete with organ. It was as if I had suddenly looked directly at the sun — I literally had to squint my eyes, and I was overcome with chills. How had Bartók achieved this miracle?
I think part of what gives this moment its power is what comes before it. Each previous room is stipulated in the libretto to have a particular color — blood-red (torture chamber), yellowish-red (armory), golden (treasury) and blue-green (garden). Bartók’s genius is manifest in his use of unearthly harmonies and instrumental timbres to find uncanny equivalents for these colors in the sounds he creates. As Judith wanders through the shadows of the first four rooms, Bartok conjures up a seemingly unlimited palette of gorgeous variants of darkness.
In addition, his melodic inspiration never flags. Although Judith and Bluebeard converse in an entirely natural conversational style, the Hungarian speech rhythms and Bartók’s use of folk idioms and modes give the music a timeless, mythic sense. We are in a rich, mysterious, allegorical world, and when the light of day bursts upon us with that C major chord, it is stunning, disconcerting and thrilling.
I have been waiting to return to Bluebeard’s Castle for decades now, and so was delighted to see that the CSO will be performing it this spring, March 28-30 and April 2. I am looking forward to it all the more because the CSO will be conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who gave an absolutely electric account of Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite a few years ago, and Judith will be sung by Michelle DeYoung, a singer of extraordinary power, depth and imagination, opposite John Relyea as Bluebeard. It promises to be a highlight of this season, and perhaps of many seasons to come.
Max Raimi has been a violist in the Chicago Symphony since 1984. He is an active chamber musician and a prolific composer. In March 2018, Riccardo Muti and the CSO performed the world-premiere performances of his Three Lisel Mueller Settings, a Chicago Symphony commission.
Note: Boulez and the CSO’s recording of Bluebeard’s Castle is available from The Symphony Store as part of a box set. That set also is available on Apple Music. The single disc may be purchased from third-party retailers via Amazon.
TOP: For Perrault’s Fairy Tales (1867), Gustave Doré created this engraving that depicts Bluebeard warning Judith not to open a secret chamber. | Photo: Wikimedia