Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta

Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta

Part 1 – Outline

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·         Béla Bartók born March 25, 1881 in Hungary; died September 26, 1945 in New York.

·         Began piano lessons with his mother at the age of 5

·         Extensive musical training received in Budapest

·         Primarily known as a composer, conductor, and ethnomusicologist

·         Adversely affected by circumstances in Nazi Germany

·         Moved permanently to the U.S. in 1940

Part 2 – Essay

            In the summer of 1936, Bartók composed his Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta for Basle Chamber Orchestra (Gillies, “Bartók”). The first remarkable characteristic of this piece is its title. Bartok chose a title that does not link the work with any pre-existing genre (as he would later do with his Concerto for Orchestra). Nor does the title link the work to any extramusical idea (as was the case with Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel). While this piece shares certain characteristics with the genre of the symphony, notably the four movements, other aspects show this work’s distance from the symphonic genre. The four movements (Andante tranquillo, Allegro, Adagio, and Allegro molto) are ordered slow, fast, slow, fast, and the opening movement is a fugue, not the more traditional sonata form. Furthermore, the work is scored for a string section divided into two groups (group 1 – violins 1 and 2, viola 1, cello 1, and bass 1; group 2 – violins 3 and 4, viola 2, cello 2, and bass 2), small side drum, cymbals, gong, bass drum, timpani, xylophone, celesta, harp, and piano. No winds or brass are included.

Instead of looking at the entire chamber work, this paper will focus specifically on the second movement so that the musical analysis can be more in-depth. Significant musical characteristics of this movement that will be discussed are form, orchestration, and rhythmic treatment.

            Bartok himself declared that the second movement of Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta is in sonata form (Antokoletz 130 n. 24). Antokoletz gives a more detailed scheme of the form as follows (130 n. 24):


                        Theme 1                      mm. 1-67                                C

                        Theme 2                      mm. 68-154                            G

                        Closing theme            mm. 155-185                          G


                        Part 1                          mm. 185-242

                        Part 2                          mm. 242-310

                        Part 3, fugato             mm. 310-371


                        Theme 1a                    mm. 372-412

                        Theme 2a                    mm. 412-479

                        Closing theme            mm. 479-490

            Coda                                      mm. 490-520

Several features of Bartok’s use of sonata form are interesting and deserving of further attention, namely the construction of tonal centricity in theme 1, the presence of a bridge in the exposition, and the use of tonic-dominant movement to mark the end of formal sections.

            The opening measures of the second movement appear as example 1. This theme is highly chromatic and by the end of m. 9, all twelve chromatic pitches have been sounded (see ex. 1).

Example 1, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, 2nd movement, mm. 1-17

The underlying harmony of the first four bars appears to be an F dominant 7 chord – the dominant 7th of Bb. However, the piano’s repeated Cs in mm. 1-5 and the strong dominant-tonic movement from G to C in the timpani and strings in mm. 7ff seem to place this theme in the key of C.

To my ear, the arrival on C in m. 19 sounds cadential (even though the orchestra is playing in unison and thus there are no triadic harmonies). Additionally, the piano enters at this point for a brief solo passage that strongly contrasts the opening polychoral writing. This in turn leads to a passage (mm. 28ff) that is strongly marked by an Ab pedal that seems out of place in the context of C. All three of these characteristics seem to mark the entire passage from mm. 19 to 67 as the bridge, a formal element was omitted in Antokoletz’s discussion of the form.

Bartok will bring back the tonic-dominant (or dominant – tonic) motion that led into m. 19 in numerous times in this movement. It appears in m. 65-66 right before the appearance of theme 2, and it appears throughout mm. 155-185, the closing section of the exposition. Based on the location of the reappearances of this motion, it seems that Bartok used this motive to highlight the ending of significant formal sections.

            The orchestration of this work is innovative. The strings, as noted above, are divided into two string-orchestras. At times, the two orchestras respond to each other as in the tradition of polychoral writing (mm. 1-13, refer back to ex. 1). Other times, Bartok exploits the powerful sound of the orchestras combined, as in mm. 372-382, where the entire string orchestra (with the exception of the two bass sections) is playing in unison (see ex. 2).

Example 2: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, 2nd movement, mm. 372-382

            Bartok’s use of the instruments seems to extend further some of the coloristic practices of Strauss. For instance, Bartok explores different ways in which standard orchestral instruments can be played. The opening measures ask the strings to execute a glissando during a pizzicato passage, and this effect returns periodically throughout the movement (mm. 170ff, mm. 187ff, mm. 245ff in orchestra 2, mm. 298ff). The timpanist is also required to execute glissandos (mm.186 and 338). In m. 116 (and again in mm. 199 ff), Bartok asks the bass players to execute a snap pizzicato, where the string is plucked so hard that it vibrates against the fingerboard. Another type of pizzicato is required in mm. 157ff. In this passage, Bartok indicates that he wants the performers to pluck the string with their fingernail (as opposed to the pad of the finger) near where the finger of the left-hand is placed. This technique produces a percussive effect as the full length of the string cannot vibrate. In some passages (m. 121 vln. 2; mm. 383ff. vln. 3; mm. 466ff. vln. 4; mm. 492-3 vln. 3 and 4; mm. 497ff. bass 1), Bartok indicates that he wants the strings to play high-pitched passages on the lower strings, a technique which gives a warm, muted quality to the tone. In mm. 155ff, the strings are asked to play sul ponticello, or on the bridge. This technique produces a raspy, harsh sound quality.

            The rhythmic drive of this second movement is one of its most striking features, and the use of the stringed instruments for their percussive capabilities certainly adds to this effect. Certain passages of this movement remain in a single meter for many measures; however, the grouping of the melodic line is not in sync with the metrical pattern. For example, in mm. 195ff, each section of the second string orchestra has its own five-note ostinato. These groups do not line up with the 2/4 meter of the passage, so each statement is displaced rhythmically by an eighth-note. Adding to the metrical chaos of this passage is the fact that the violins (3 and 4), violas, cellos, and basses each start their ostinato pattern at a different time (see ex. 3).

Example 3: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, 2nd movement, mm. 195-206

This same passage is notable for the highly, syncopated accented chords in the first string orchestra and the piano. This passage is one of many that remind me of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Another area in which Bartók demonstrates that rhythmic effects were important in this composition is through the frequently changing meters. A passage that illustrates this principle is mm. 361-379. In less than twenty bars, the meter changes from 3/4, to 5/8, 2/4, 3/8, 2/4, 3/8, 5/8, 2/4, 3/8, 5/8, and to 3/8. These frequent meter changes could be attributed to the influence of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

            One passage in particular is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s rhythmic treatment in the Rite of Spring. In mm. 480-488, asymmetrical pattern of the repeated chords in the piano is reinforced by the forte entrance of the xylophone (see ex. 4). This passage bears striking similarities to “The Augurs of Spring” section of Stravinsky’s work.

Example 4: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, 2nd movement, mm. 480-488

In listening to this movement, the formal sections sound very clearly defined. Indeed, it sounds as if Bartok is deliberately highlighting key moments of the form through traditional means in order to compensate for some of the musical elements that one does not typically expect to find in a classical sonata form movement (highly chromatic theme 1, unstable meter and asymmetrical rhythmic figures). Through analyzing the score, I discovered that there are elements that certainly derived from previous composers from many different musical eras. The polychoral writing suggests a late Renaissance, early Baroque influence. The use of sonata form pays homage to the Classical era. The extended techniques of the string section call to mind Strauss’ innovations in orchestration. All of these earlier concepts are combined with elements of the Modern era, specifically chromaticism and innovative treatment of rhythm. In spite of these diverse influences, the work does not sound like a mixture of different musical styles. Instead, the work sounds coherent, as if Bartok was able to re-invent these musical devices with his own personal compositional language.

Works Cited

Antokoletz, Elliot. The Music of Béla Bartók: A Study of Tonality and Progression in Twentieth-            Century Music. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Bartók, Béla. Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Vienna and London: Universal Edition,          1937.

Gillies, Malcolm. “Bartók, Béla.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 5 May 2009             <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/40686>.

– – -. “Masterworks (I): Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.” The Bartók Companion. Ed.             Malcolm Gillies. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1994. 303-314.


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