Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is one of his greatest works, written in 1936 during one of the most successful periods in his life. One of Bartók's great accomplishments, and something that marks him as one of the great composers of the early 20th century, was his successful blending of the familiar and established musical practices with the modern elements that were starting to appear at the time. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is simultaneously modern and accessible, and it's the first piece of classical music that I've ever gotten stuck in my head. On the first listen it seems to be all over the place, but this is a piece worth investing time and careful listening in to discover the interconnectedness that Bartók has woven into it. At only about 26 minutes (according to the score; my recording is somewhat longer) it won't wear out its welcome or require too large a time investment.
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is written for a string octet (or perhaps more accurately, two string quartets) and various other strings and percussion1. The score requests that the percussion be located, spatially, between the two string quartets, and it's hard to imagine that any recording can do this arrangement justice.
The piece opens quietly, almost inaudibly, with a "germ" that will recur frequently in different manifestations throughout the piece, so listen carefully. The germ itself consists of four phrases, each of whose notes fill out all the chromatic pitches in an interval, and the chromaticism lends it a menacing tone. This germ is a good example of Bartók's own style of using modern elements like chromaticism in his music, which usually defied easy categorization among the styles prevalent at the time like Schoenberg's twelve-tone system and Stravinsky's neoclassicism.
i. Andante tranquillo - The first movement of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is a fugue on the germ which opens the piece, subjecting it to some manipulations which are, curiously enough, based on the circle of fifths. Alternating new incarnations of the main theme appear in ascending and descending fifths; the fugue begins on an A and crescendoes until the two lines both reach Eb, the most distant note along the circle of fifths. Even if you don't know or aren't interested in this theory, you can hear the opening theme cropping up repeatedly in this movement.
The chromaticism of the germ and the slow tempo give the first movement a quiet menace from the very beginning, and that menace is only amplified as more strings come in atop the others and the dynamic level builds and builds. After the climax when the lines converge on and hold an Eb, the opening germ makes a reappearance with the intervals inverted. Whereas the original germ rose and then fell in pitch, the redux here falls and then rises as it returns to the original pitch of A. At the very end of the movement, the germ and its inversion are layered atop one another.
For math geeks: The musicologist Ernö Lendvai2 claimed that Bartók's entire musical aesthetic was founded on the Golden Ratio. The example most often cited is this movement of this piece, which consists of exactly 89 measures. The climax of the movement, in terms of dynamic level, occurs after measure 55. Further, the strings are muted until after measure 34, and also for the last 21 measures. The numbers 21, 34, 55 and 89 are consecutive Fibonacci numbers, and this just scratches the surface of the influence of the Golden Ratio on Bartók's music.
ii. Allegro - The second movement begins in an altogether more lively mood, and whereas the first movement was largely constant in terms of orchestral color, the second makes use of string pizzicato, the piano, and percussion such as the snare and bass drums. Again, this movement opens with a theme which will reappear throughout, although the second movement is not as tightly constructed as the first. The theme which starts the second movement is also strikingly similar to the germ of the first movement, although it's a bit more difficult to tell because of how hectic the movement is.
Indeed, "hectic" would be a good choice if one had to pick a single word to describe the second movement. Whereas the first movement was strict in its adherence to the fugue structure and had a generally monotonic change in dynamic levels, this movement frequently goes from loud to soft and back in the blink of an eye. The treatment of the themes and motifs is different as well. The movement is clearly based on some recurring themes, but they're treated more freely here and not as easy to recognize as the germ in the first movement.
iii. Adagio - The third movement is an adagio which shares the slow tempo and (mostly) fairly subdued dynamic levels of the first movement. These superficial similarities make this movement a sort of counterpart to the first, but the very significant differences between the two are apparent from the very beginning. Whereas the emphasis in the first movement was on the tightly structured development of a single motif, here everything from the instrumentation to the thematic material sounds very free and unstructured.
In spite of the somewhat arbitrary sound of this movement, Bartók keeps it cohesive by alluding to themes from previous movements. The germ from the first movement makes a fleeting appearance just before the celesta and harp glissandoes start; after they end, at the loud climax of the movement and afterwards, the strings play a melody which is also reminiscent of that germ. This movement is often cited as an example of what is called Bartók's "night music," and the dark timbres and slow pace throughout the movement should make the source of this name fairly apparent.
iv. Molto allegro - As the third movement was a counterpart to the slow first movement, this one corresponds to the faster second movement. It seems from the beginning that this last movement will be more cheerful than the previous three, and while it's not sunshine and roses all the way through, the overall tone is indeed optimistic and vibrant. This movement is very far from where we started, but the piece still holds together. Not only will now-familiar themes make their final appearances in this movement, but it could be said to be in the key of A. The first movement used A as its starting and ending position, but here it is the center in a more conventional way.
The initial germ makes a very striking appearance in this movement, in a microcosm of the first movement in a diatonic rather than a chromatic context. As in the first movement, we have a development of that germ as the dynamic level swells and then recedes. But the strings then become a muddle and a solo violin emerges from them; the vivacious theme of the opening of this movement soon returns and carries it through to its exuberant conclusion.
What follows is some biographical information about Bartók and how it pertains to my interpretation of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Because I grew up with pop music, music without lyrics often seems too abstract for me to try to find what motivates it. I have a rough narrative of sorts, though, for Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta which has helped me to make sense of it on an emotional level. If you don't like reading interpretations of music, you may still find the biographical information interesting; I'll warn you before you get to my interpretation.
For most of his composing career, Bartók was at odds with Hungarian "high culture". He wanted to create a Hungarian music, since the other clods responsible for so-called Hungarian art were all looking to France and Germany for their inspiration. Bartók believed that the true Hungarian identity was not to be found in the big city of Budapest, the city in which he studied and which was becoming less Hungarian, he felt, all around him.
Instead, Bartók turned to the Hungarian peasant life for his inspiration. In the 1910s and 20s he traveled through eastern Europe cataloguing folk music in Hungary, Transylvania and Bulgaria, among other countries. Many of these folk melodies became part of Bartók's own work as he strove to take the rustic culture and make it relevant in a world where the future was becoming much more important than the past, and where the urban was triumphing over the rural in commerce and in culture.
Bartók didn't explicitly use any folk melodies in Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, but the lively melody in the fourth movement is certainly reminiscent of a bustling countryside. That's the end, though. Where does the piece start? In the rigidly structured city which Bartók found so stifling. The main germ, packed chromatically into four tight intervals, provides the material for the entire first movement. That material is developed according to a rigid plan and after the climax it returns right back to where it started. While the first movement is beautiful, and while the themes introduced in it will take on added significance in subsequent movements, it sounds very walled in and repressed. Not until the third and fourth movements does the piece really open up.
The second movement is busier than the first, but it's more tumultuous than free. The melodies, while not as tightly developed as in the fugue of the first movement, are still very obviously derived from the same material. Whereas the first movement represented the quiet smothering Bartók suffered at the hands of the city, this movement explores its hustle and bustle and its hectic self-importance. Every lull leads to another pressing forward, another urgent struggle that never really gets anywhere.
After this, the third movement is a time-out; it's a counterpart to the first movement in more ways than one. The calmness of the first movement was a quiet menace; this movement's calm is more unrestrained in the instrumentation and the development of the material. The "night music" aspects of the movement, from the soft piano to the harp, celesta and timpani glissandoes, are strongly evocative of nature, one of Bartók's most significant inspirations. This movement represents the freedom offered by an escape into nature, and when the menacing theme from the first movement reappears it is fleeting and insubstantial. The use of orchestral color to evoke natural themes here is reminiscent of Debussy's impressionism; Debussy was one of Bartók's strongest influences.
Finally, the barriers are thrown wide open and we are treated to the soaring and rustic melody that opens the fourth movement. We have come around to discovering the folk music of which Bartók was so enamoured, and it is the most passionate and lively music in this piece. When the oppressive initial germ appears again for the last time in this new tonal context it is defanged and harmless. It makes its appearance, less threatening than before, and quickly fades away, to be replaced by the peasant melody which has ousted it. This final triumph allows the piece to conclude on a supremely optimistic note, which I must confess holds some appeal to my own nature. Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta is like a 26-minute condensation of the struggle which consumed Bartók for almost the entirety of his composing career, and after hearing it, it's impossible to say that he didn't succeed.
1 Specifically: timpani, snare drum, celesta, piano, bass drum, cymbals, xylophone, and harp.
2 Source: Cited in Livio, Mario. The Golden Ratio. New York: Broadway Books, 2002.
Also I listened to the piece like 6,000 times. I'm noding my homework here, except that I completely rewrote this for E2 after writing it for my class. Only the best for you, ladies and gentlemen.