Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

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Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
by Béla Bartók
Bartok Bela 1927.jpg
The composer in 1927
Catalogue Sz. 106, BB 114
Composed1936 (1936)
Dedication Paul Sacher
DateJanuary 21, 1937 (1937-01-21)
Location Basel, Switzerland
ConductorPaul Sacher
Performers Basler Kammerorchester

Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz. 106, BB 114 is one of the best-known compositions by the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. Commissioned by Paul Sacher to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the chamber orchestra Basler Kammerorchester , the score is dated September 7, 1936.


The work was premiered in Basel, Switzerland on January 21, 1937 by the chamber orchestra conducted by Sacher, and it was published the same year by Universal Edition.


As its title indicates, the piece is written for string instruments (violins, violas, cellos, double basses, and harp), percussion instruments (xylophone, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, bass drum, and timpani) and celesta. The ensemble also includes a piano, which, due to the hammer mechanisms inside, also classifies as a percussion instrument; the celesta player joins the pianist in some four-hands passages. Bartók divides the strings into two ensembles which, he directs, should be placed antiphonally on opposite sides of the stage, and he makes use of antiphonal effects particularly in the second and fourth movements.

The piece is in four movements: the first and third slow; the second and fourth quick. All of the movements are written without a key signature:

  1. Andante tranquillo
  2. Allegro
  3. Adagio
  4. Allegro molto
Example of interval expansion: movement I, mm. 1-5 and movement IV, mm. 204-209. Play (help*info) Bartok - Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta interval expansion.png
Example of interval expansion: movement I, mm. 1–5 and movement IV, mm. 204–209. Loudspeaker.svg Play  

The first movement is a slow fugue with a constantly changing time signature. The movement is based around the note A, on which it begins and ends. It begins with muted strings, and as more voices enter, the texture thickens and the music becomes louder, coming to a climax on E, a tritone away from A. Mutes are then removed, and the music becomes gradually quieter over gentle celesta arpeggios. The movement ends with the second phrase of the fugue subject played softly over its inversion. The first movement can be seen as a basis for material in the later movements; the fugue subject recurs in different guises at points throughout the piece.

The second movement is quick, with a theme in 2
time which is transformed into 3
time towards the end. It is marked with a loud syncopated piano and percussion accents in a whirling dance, evolving in an extended pizzicato section, with a piano concerto-like conclusion.

The third movement is slow, an example of what is often called Bartók's "night music". It features timpani glissandi, which was an unusual technique at the time of the work's composition, as well as a prominent part for the xylophone. The rhythm of the xylophone solo that opens the third movement is a "written-out accelerando/ritardando" which follows the Fibonacci sequence, the notated rhythm representing 1:1:2:3:5:8:5:3:2:1:1 notes per beat in sequence.

The fourth and final movement, which begins with notes on the timpani and strummed pizzicato chords on the strings, has the character of a lively folk dance.

The popularity of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is demonstrated by the use of themes from this work in films and popular music. The second movement of this work accompanies "Craig's Dance of Despair and Disillusionment" from the film Being John Malkovich . The Adagio movement was used as the theme music for The Vampira Show (1954–1955). The movement was also featured in the Encyclopaedia Britannica film The Solar System (1977) and the Stanley Kubrick film The Shining (1980). Jerry Goldsmith wrote in the style of this piece for the 1962 film Freud: The Secret Passion . It also was the soundtrack for the 1978 Australian film Money Movers . Also the work is sampled by Anthony "Ant" Davis from the underground hip hop group Atmosphere, from Minneapolis, on the song "Aspiring Sociopath" of their album Lucy Ford .

The architect Steven Holl used the overlapping strettos that occur in this piece as a parallel on which the form of the Stretto House (1989) in Dallas, Texas was made.

The novel City of Night (1962) by John Rechy makes reference to Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta (p. 145, passim), a work which haunts the main character. The piece is also mentioned in the novel The Collector (1963) by John Fowles, where one of the main characters, Miranda Grey, calls it "The loveliest."

Much of the music from this collection, along with The Miraculous Mandarin , can be heard as underscore for two Doctor Who stories: 1967's "The Enemy of the World" and 1968's "The Web of Fear".


The first recording of the work was made in 1949 by the Los Angeles Chamber Symphony under Harold Byrns, [2]

Other recordings include:

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  1. Michiel Schuijer (2008-11-30). Analyzing Atonal Music: Pitch-Class Set Theory and Its Contexts. University Rochester Press. p. 79. ISBN   978-1-58046-270-9.
  2. "Central Opera Service Bulletin" (PDF). Winter 1977–78. Retrieved 2010-07-17.