Cantata Profana (subtitled A kilenc csodaszarvas ["The Nine Enchanted Stags"], Sz 94) is a work for double mixed chorus and orchestra by the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. Completed on 8 September 1930, it received its premiere in London on 25 May 1934, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Wireless Chorus conducted by Aylmer Buesst. Tenor Trefor Jones and baritone Frank Phillips were the featured soloists. The work was presented in an English translation by M.D. Calvocoressi.
The source texts which Bartók used to create the libretto were two Romanian colinde that he collected from Transylvania in April 1914. Colinde are ballads which are sung during the Christmas season, although many colinde have no connection to the Christian Nativity and are believed to have their origin in pre-Christian times.
The story is of a father who has taught his nine sons only how to hunt, so they know nothing of work and spend all of their time in the forest. One day while hunting a large and beautiful stag, they cross a haunted bridge and are themselves transformed into stags. The distressed father takes his rifle and goes out in search of his missing sons. Finding a group of fine stags gathered around a spring, he drops to one knee and takes aim. The largest stag (eldest son) pleads with his father not to shoot. The father, recognizing his favorite son in the stag, begs his children to come home. The stag then replies that they can never come home: their antlers cannot pass through doorways and they can no longer drink from cups, only cool mountain springs. In an English translation created much later, Bartók retains the six-syllable versification of the original Romanian text. Below is Bartók's own translation of the text from the third movement:
- Once upon a time there
- Was an aged man, he
- Had nine handsome boys.
- Never has he taught them
- Any handicraft, he
- Taught them only how to
- Hunt in forests dark.
- There they roamed, hunted
- All the year around, and
- Changed into stags in
- Forests dark and wild.
- Never will their antlers
- Enter gates and doors, but
- Only woods and shrubs;
- Never will their bodies
- Wear a shirt and coat but
- Only foliage;
- Nevermore their feet will
- Walk on houses' floors but
- Only in the sward;
- Nevermore their mouth will
- Drink from cups and jugs but
- From the clearest springs.
Bartók translated the original Romanian into Hungarian and entrusted a German translation to Bence Szabolcsi. In 1955, Robert Shaw created a new English translation. The original Romanian text has not appeared in any of the published versions of Cantata Profana.
Cantata Profana is divided into three continuous movements: the first movement describes the hunt and the magic transformation, while the second movement recounts the father's search for his sons and his encounter with them. The third movement recapitulates the narrative. The overall ABA' structure exemplifies Bartók's use of palindromic, or arch, form.
The work opens with an ascending non-diatonic scale: D-E-F-G-A♭-B♭-C. This scale firmly establishes the tonal center of D and provides the framework for much of the melodic content of the Cantata. The opening gesture is immediately followed by a paraphrase of the first two bars of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Bartók offers no explanation of why he chose to include this quotation in what is otherwise a decidedly secular work, although some theorists believe that Bartók's Cantata is modeled on Bach's Passion. The choirs enter a few measures later, gradually building larger and larger diatonic clusters, until the first true melody appears as if out of a mist. Two choirs sing of the nine sons knowing of nothing but the hunt.
The B section of the first movement, marked Allegro molto, is a breathless fugue describing the hunt. Primal drums and horn calls punctuate the music through this section, while the chorus describes the hunters wandering farther and farther into the forest.
The final section of the first movement begins as the riotous hunt music dies down and the mood suddenly becomes quiet and mysterious: they have arrived at a haunted bridge. Here the transformation occurs and the boys are turned into stags.
The first section of the second movement recounts the father's search for his sons. A variant of the fugue subject, now Andante, provides the melodic material for the chorus to narrate the father's trek to the haunted bridge. As the father sees nine fine stags at a spring, he takes aim with his rifle. The music becomes more and more agitated until the largest stag calls out. Here begins the tenor solo, which is the voice of the stag imploring the father not to take aim at his children, lest they should have to kill him. In the manner of a Greek drama, the chorus interjects the father's recognition of his sons.
The baritone solo then begins as the father pleads with his sons to come home. "Everything is ready," he says, "the lanterns are lit, the table is set, the cups are filled and your mother grieves." Here again the chorus prepares the stag's reply: "we can never return, our antlers cannot pass through doorways, only roam the forest groves." "Never can they go." is chanted by the chorus as the music grows ever softer and the second movement quietly draws to a close.
Cantata Profana concludes with the choirs' recapitulation of the narrative. Haunting and lyrical, the melodies are woven into rich diatonic harmonies, bringing a sense of the timelessness of myth to the ending of the piece. As the chorus finishes its retelling of the story, the tenor returns with an impassioned flourish on the words, "from cool mountain springs". The work ends as it began, with an ascending scale, but this time in an inverted form of the opening scale.
Bartók once confided to Bence Szabolcsi that the Cantata Profana was "his most profound credo". This highly personal credo has engendered a great deal of discussion on the many layers of possible interpretations apparent in the myth of the nine enchanted stags. It has been suggested that the Cantata is an expression of Bartók's humanistic ideal of a brotherhood of all people and nations and ultimately of individual freedom. Perhaps he was moved by the plight of his fellow Hungarians during the Great Depression of the 1930s or wished to express his opposition to the rising tide of fascism in Europe during this time.
On the surface, a simple parable is evident: it is a morality tale about the consequences of not teaching our children their proper place in society, or as a story of generational conflict. Just as valid would be to understand the transformation of the sons into stags as a rite of passage: ritual death followed by transfiguration, leading to a new life in a "pure" state of being. Perhaps the myth of the nine stags is an idealization of a natural state where one no longer needs the trappings of civilized man and is now free to drink from "pure mountain springs". Like all of our great myths, there can never be a single "correct" interpretation. Whether the stag's final wailing cry is one of anguish and loss or of exuberance and freedom depends on one's own perspective.
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