Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta

Notes by Christopher H. Gibbs, Artistic Codirector of the Bard Music Festival

In the summer of 1936, the 55-year-old Béla Bartók, having by then achieved considerable international fame as a performer, composer, and ethnomusicologist, tackled a formidable array of compositional challenges in his Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, a work of astonishing synthesis, organicism, and technical brilliance. The synthesis is to be found in Bartók’s ability to integrate his profound knowledge of Western musical tradition, immediately evident in the fugue that opens the piece, with his pathbreaking research of folk music, not limited to the region of his native Hungary but extending farther afield to North Africa. The organicism of Music for Strings comes from the way in which a four-movement piece grows out of, and is also unified by, the melody that begins the work.

The Swiss conductor and music patron Paul Sacher commissioned the piece for the 10th anniversary of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, which premiered it in January 1937. Unlike Bartók’s other most famous orchestral work, the Concerto for Orchestra (1943), which gives many instrumentalists a chance to shine, the orchestral means are much more limited in this instance. Aside from the full string orchestra, which is divided into two equal groups on either side of the conductor with the basses in the back, there is a battery of percussion instruments as well as piano, harp, and celesta. The celesta is a keyboard instrument—it looks like a miniature upright piano— invented in the mid-19th century. (Tchaikovsky was the first famous composer to use it, in his ballet The Nutcracker.) Its hammers hit not tightly wound strings, as they do in a piano, but rather metal plates, producing a bright, tinkling sound.

Bartók began his First String Quartet (1908–09) with a slow fugue—successive entries of each of the string instruments in complex imitation. This was a clear homage to Beethoven, who started his late String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, the 6 same way. Bartók returned to the idea in Music for Strings, but took it to a greater extreme by making the entire first movement (Andante tranquillo) a slowly unfolding exploration of the opening theme; he recycles elements of the same melody in the following three movements as well. Muted violas begin by stating the fugal “subject,” a serpentine melody that slithers up and then back down. The range from highest note to lowest is extremely limited, with most pitches next to one another. The melody is chromatic, not diatonic, meaning that if it were played on the piano in C major it would use both white and black keys, not just the white ones. “Chromatic” derives from the Greek word for color, and this movement, even though primarily for strings, is nonetheless particularly colorful because of the inflections of the melodies.

The other strings imitate the viola’s lead, first violins then cellos, with these higher and lower instruments alternating back and forth around the anchoring violas in the middle. Because Bartók has divided the string orchestra into two groups, twice as many entrances are possible, which produces some striking antiphonal effects. The strings build in volume and density before percussion instruments enter to mark the movement’s climax; here the strings also take off the mutes and produce a fuller, more resonant tone. Bartók now inverts the fugal subject—what previously had crept up now creeps down, and vice versa. Indeed, at one moment Bartók has the two versions happening simultaneously, both the original contour of the theme and its inversion. At this same point the celesta makes its first appearance with glittering arpeggiated chords. What Bartók slowly built up from the unaccompanied violas beginning on the pitch A, winds down eventually to the violins playing that same note to conclude.

The following Allegro is a lively contrast, prepared by the slow opening movement. (The entire four-movement piece might be considered two slow-fast pairs, each one of roughly equal length.) The rhythmic profile may remind one of Stravinsky’s music and the percussion instruments, piano, harp, and celesta all become more prominent. A single pitch, F, repeated on the xylophone begins the Adagio, an atmospheric movement that many commentators describe as nocturnal. Bartók uses his beloved arch form (ABCBA) with a cascading harp, piano, and celesta passage in the middle. The xylophone also closes the movement. The final Allegro molto is a dance-like movement that most obviously projects a folk character. Unlike the chromaticism of the first movement, this one has simple diatonic tunes that build to a mighty conclusion.