Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste BB114 1936
Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste is one of his most well known pieces along with the Concerto for Orchestra and the 6 string quartets. It was commissioned to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Basel Chamber Orchestra and premiered 21 January 1937.
In the score Bartók stipulates that the strings are divided antiphonally.
Although the piece was written 15 years before Gyorgy Ligeti’s Romanian Concerto, it sounds quite modern in comparison. Bartók fled Hungary for the United States in 1930 and was free to compose as he wished. Also, Bartók was a much older man, so his compositional style had already matured.
It is well known that folk music was Bartók’s great love. He and Zoltan Kodaly were responsible for an enormous folk music collection project and co-founded the academic discipline of ethnomusicology. As you might expect, elements of folk music are omnipresent in Bartók’s work, whether it be rhythm, melody, tonality or form.
Bartók was writing while Schonberg was developing his system of atonal serialism. Rather than being a reactionary, Bartók wanted to show Schonberg that “one can use all 12 tones and still remain tonal“. He did this by writing pieces that were polytonal. Playing in more than one key simultaneously is a feature of some Eastern European folk music.
A slow fugue is the basis for the first movement. Rather than use a melodic subject like Bach, Bartók uses a chromatic motive centring on the pitch A. He further rejects the formal key structure traditionally associated with fugue by writing the score without any key signature at all. The idiom is much closer to his later string quartets than his violin rhapsodies or early piano works.
Bartók stipulates in the score that the strings be arranged antiphonally, which results in a stereo sound experience. The opening of the second movement uses this to full effect with fragments of the tune being tossed back and forth across the orchestra. This technique was exploited to the extreme by American radio orchestras in the early 1950s when stereo speakers were a new invention.
Often referred to as Bartók’s night music, the third movement is punctuated by imaginative use of percussion. It opens with a solo xylophone and goes on to feature tympani glissandi, an effect created by adjusting the tuning pedal after the drum head is struck.
Tympani and pizzicato strings get the final movement off to a lively start. Folk rhythms and melodies are interspersed with episodes of the first movement fugue, most notably near the end, where what appears to be a final frenzied climax is interrupted by the languid return of the fugue.