Bartók read Lengyel's piece and immediately wrote down some music inspired by the content of the work. Bartók played his musical ideas to Lengyel, and the author was delighted with it. The two had not met before then, but became friends and collaborators. While Bartók worked on the score for the ballet, he wrote to his wife about the music:
It will be hellish music. The prelude before the curtain goes up will be very short and sound like pandemonium... the audience will be introduced to the den of thieves at the height of the hurly-burly of the metropolis.The First World War delayed the completion of the score until 1919 with the orchestration taking yet another three years, and the first staging of the ballet had to wait until 1926. The premiere of what was now being called a dance pantomime occurred in Cologne, Germany. A short synopsis of the lurid story of the work in Bartók's own words:
Not many who heard the premiere agreed with Bartók's beautiful story opinion, as the performance caused a huge scandal as reported in a German music journal:
Just listen to how beautiful the story is. Three thugs force a beautiful young girl to seduce men and lure them into their den, where they will be robbed. The first turns out to be poor, the second likewise, but the third is a Chinese, a good catch, as it turns out. The girl entertains him with her dance. The Mandarin’s desire is aroused. His love flares up, but the girl recoils from him. The thugs attack the Mandarin, rob him, smother him with pillows, stab him with a sword, all in vain, because the Mandarin continues watching the girl with eyes full of yearning... the girl complies with the Mandarin’s wish, whereupon he drops dead.
Cologne, a city of churches, monasteries and chapels... has lived to see its first true scandal. Catcalls, whistling, stamping, and booing... which did not subside even after the composer’s personal appearance, nor even after the safety curtain went down... The press, with the exception of the left, protests, the clergy of both denominations hold meetings, the mayor of the city intervenes dictatorially and bans the pantomime from the repertoire... Waves of moral outrage engulf the city...Bartók prepared the suite of the ballet that uses roughly two-thirds of the music. The suite was first performed in Hungary in 1928.
The suite begins with a depiction of the chaos and noise of the city. Three tramps are in a room. They have no money so they enlist the help of a girl to dance seductively in front of their window to try and lure men into the room so they can rob them. The girl's seductive dance is portrayed by the clarinet. The first man that is lured into the room is an old man. He pursues the girl, but once the tramps discover he has no money he is thrown out of the room. The clarinet again depicts the seductive dance of the girl and this time a young man enters the room. He begins to dance with the girl, and his passion grows. But he also does not have any money so the tramps throw him out. Again the girl dances, and this time she attracts a wealthy Chinese man, a Mandarin (portrayed by trombone glissandos) The tramps hide as they hear the Mandarin's footsteps up the stairs to the room. The Mandarin stands in the doorway and the tramps encourage the girl to keep dancing. The Mandarin makes a lunge for the girl and embraces her. She escapes and the Mandarin begins to chase her with the tramps close behind. The suite ends with the chase that takes the form of a fugue, and brash chords for full orchestra. The full ballet continues with the repeated efforts of the tramps to kill the Mandarin. They try to smother him with pillows and stab him three times with a rusty sword, but he still grabs the girl. They hang him from a light pole, but the pole falls and the Mandarin's body begins to glow eerily. The girl finally submits to the Mandarin, and after his passion has been satisfied his wounds begin to bleed and he dies.