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Composed: 1936

Length: 27 minutes

Orchestration: two complete string orchestras divided spatially by the percussion (timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drums, tam-tam, xylophone)—plus harp, piano two- and four-hands, and celesta

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 14, 1957, Eduard van Beinum conducting

About this Piece

Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta occupies a special place among Bartók’s compositions, not only for its fearlessly independent choice of instruments, but also for the intense expressiveness and vitality of the materials. It was written on commission from that unflinching champion of new music, the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher (1906-1999), in celebration of the 10th anniversary of his Basle Chamber Orchestra.

The beginning of Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta breathes an atmosphere of cloaked mystery, as the violas of both string groups present a theme that is actually the subject of a fugue. This creeping, irregular motif not only dominates the entire movement but also figures importantly in the subsequent movements. The sinuous twisting of the subject, strings muted, releases a dark tension that defies the “tranquil” part of the moderately slow tempo of the movement’s heading, Andante tranquillo. After the initial viola presentation of the subject, various strings take it up; mutes are removed, and with the addition of timpani and cymbals, the music develops tremendous force. A chilling climax, initiated by the thrust of the bass drum, is short lived; the climactic burst subsides quickly; strings are again muted. The subject is now inverted—intervals that went up now go down, and vice versa—and, with celesta cascades producing an unearthly aura, the movement ends in microcosms of the subject.

What is the source of such diabolical music? The chromatic wanderings suggest Wagner and his Tristan, which gave us early Schoenberg. But there are other antecedents, and these include Strauss, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, and, crucially, the folk music of Bartók’s native Hungary and its environs. It was this latter, large body of music, researched for years by Bartók, that became the all-pervading force of his creativity, the distinctive elements of which gave his work an individuality as unmistakable to the ear as a well-developed photograph is to the eye: rhythms that pound insistently or that are arrestingly irregular; modes and exotic scale combinations; severely simple melodies whose rise and fall stem from speech patterns; driving, often barbaric energy and, in contrast, wondrously provocative calms; an amalgam of simple triadic harmonies and acerbic dissonances. From all of these elements came Bartók’s ingenious, novel language.

In the second movement, we have the dynamic Bartók in high gear. Antiphonal exchange between the two string orchestras is exploited to the fullest here. The timpani and now piano and harp contribute to a sonorous, impulsive fabric that explodes with vital energy, retreats to a playful episode very briefly, and then resumes its initial propulsion.

The atmospheric, endlessly evocative musical combinations that have come to be known as Bartók’s “night music” exist in their own special world, and the third movement epitomizes that world. Provocative, chilling, eerie, it is the antithesis of the romantically colored piano nocturne created by John Field and Frédéric Chopin. A xylophone incantation on a single note coupled with timpani glissandos is a herald of the extraordinary sonorities Bartók was able to conjure. That the materials of this movement are derived from the first movement’s fugue subject adds to one’s enormous regard for Bartók’s inventiveness.

The main theme of the finale, a dynamic melody in Bulgarian dance rhythm introduced by the strumming of strings, has all the elements for an edge-of-the seat musical adventure—wildness, percussiveness, syncopation, and rapidly changing meters. At one point, the fugue subject, somewhat varied, is openly recalled; later, the dance theme is given a lush, almost romantic broadening. But the movement ends with the dance theme racing to the finish with decisive, no-holds-barred brilliance. —Orrin Howard