Once upon a time… Where did this happen? Outside, or within? The music sounds, the flames are lit... Observe carefully.’


Those are the words that the Bard, the narrator, declaims at the start of one of the strangest pieces of 20th-century music, an opera that remains an enigmatic and terrifying riddle more than a century after the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók composed it in 1911: Bluebeard’s Castle.

What do we observe there? There are just two singing parts in this story: the aristocratic sadist Bluebeard, who brings his latest young wife Judith to his castle, with its seven locked doors.

Her curiosity flings them all open throughout the drama, revealing his torture chamber and his armoury, the walls of the castle oozing with the chromatic torment and blood-stained semitones of Bartók’s score; there’s the thrilling blaze of C major dominion behind the fifth door, and the living corpses of Bluebeard’s previous wives behind the seventh and last door, where Judith is doomed to join them at the end of the opera.

Bluebeard’s Castle is the staging of a well-known fairytale, which had already been turned into operas by Offenbach and Dukas before Bartók, and it’s been remade by writers and film-makers like Angela Carter and Catherine Breillat in our time. But it’s also a piece that puts pure psychology on the opera stage: locked doors, dark chambers of imagination and sexuality that Bluebeard would rather keep hidden but that Judith can’t resist trying to open with her love.

Why was the 30-year-old Bartók so attracted to this story? And why did he dedicate the piece to his wife, Márta Ziegler, who was 16 when they married? What a wedding gift, in its sound, its symbolism and its story: an older man with a teenage bride, a life in which she walks round the castle of his imagination and creativity to find only darkness. Blue-beard, Bartók-beard, who knows?

But it’s not as a chance to psychologise its composer that Bluebeard’s Castle remains so darkly fascinating for us today. The piece is really an invitation to observe ourselves through the horrifying machinations of its story.

There’s another, unseen door that the piece opens: to our own responses to this drama. We might choose to bury the Bluebeard experience deep in the recesses of our imagination, but if we’re honest, we also want to go down there and open those locked vaults: what secrets will we find in ourselves? Our sympathy for Judith, or our sympathy for Bluebeard? Do you let the light into the darkest places of your consciousness, or keep them hidden?

Bartók’s bravery in Bluebeard is going there in his own creative and psychic world, and daring to open those doors: our question is whether we’re brave enough to join him.


Illustration © Maria Corte Maidagan


BBC Radio 3 Presenter Tom Service
Tom ServiceColumnist, BBC Music Magazine

Tom Service is a familiar voice to BBC Radio 3 listeners, the station on which he has presented Music Matters since 2003 and his own programme The Listening Service, in which he breaks down how music works. He is also a monthly columnist for BBC Music Magazine. For many years, Service wrote for The Guardian, where he was chief classical music critic.