Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Béla Bartók

by tacet

Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle ushered in a new period of psychological realism, darkness, and economy of material in his music. Premiered in 1937, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was an incredibly compelling step forward in transferring these forces into the abstract realm. An Expressionist engagement with the drama of oppositions meets with a feeling of black comedy to create a highly visceral experience, married with masterful technical achievement.

This extraordinary work adds to Bartók’s assimilation of folk traditions of his native Hungary a sophisticated dialectic between ancient and modern. The movements each caricature a different form whilst adapting them to the precise, shadowy vision of the music. He does not fully embrace these archaic forms but chooses certain features from a distance, with the result of creating 20th century metaphors for the fugue, sonata and concerto, rather than wholeheartedly continuing their tradition.

Bartók’s worldview derived from a deep love of nature, and to an extent, a suspicion of man. This is prevalent in the poignantly restrained third movement, one of his finest examples of “night music”, marked by the interruption of “human” emotionalism of the opening viola theme into music otherwise expressive of purely natural beauty. The rustic Hungarian song and dance of the finale, heightened by Bartók’s exuberant tonal language, feels like the swansong of an old Eastern Europe before it was to be buried two years later.

The two antiphonal string orchestras on either side of the stage echo the Baroque concerto grosso, creating a spatially fascinating interplay of sonorities which Bartók exploits to great effect, employing dense contrapuntal writing. This represents a natural continuation of his blocky, clearly delineated scoring in his earlier orchestral music. The string choirs lie at the emotional centre of the piece, but his addition of the percussion is a perfect example of his use of orchestral colour to shade in the depth of the music at certain moments.

The interval of a tritone (such as C – F sharp) represented the “devil in music” in the Baroque and dark, elemental powers in late Romantic music. Bartók takes advantage of the associations of this interval (like everything else in the piece, derived from the opening motivic cell) but without a hint of cliché or irony; it is woven into its richly evocative yet totally unpretentious fabric. In the same way, the piece represents the culmination of Bartók’s tonally centric writing (certain individual notes act as “pitch centres”) but it is never in a key, so that the structural tension of long-range tonality is present like a shadow throughout without restricting itself to any sort of triad-based harmony. Disparate approaches are made harmonious in this most tightly unified of all works.

Stanley Kubrick’s famous use of the piece in The Shining is a testament to its strange power to enrapture coupled with an unsettling feeling of déjà vu. What makes it remarkable is its totally abstract, universal passion expressed through a rigorously intellectual concentration of thought.

Below is a recording of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta accompanied by a brief listening guide.

The first movement is an enormous fugue, consisting of a completely unbroken stream of notes producing a compelling, hypnotic power, seemingly infinite in its potential to expand and yet governed by a highly logical system. Starting around the pitch A, it reaches its ensnaring climax at 5:22 (at E flat, a tritone away). The fugue subject proves so powerful that it overflows into every corner of the rest of the piece. The breathless return of the opening is transformed by the cold glitter of the celesta at 7:25. However homogeneous it may be, the movement sets the tone for the whole work, embodying an intense engagement with its own material qualified by a frightened sense of distance.

The second, a boisterous dance movement, is cast in an expanded sonata form, with the opening flourishes oddly contradicted by a hushed, mathematical development at 3:15. The return to the movement’s opening at 5:21 is made the victim of a crude metrical shift enforced by timpani.

The deeply felt yet icy third movement is at the heart of the work. The xylophone’s accelerating then slowing pulse at the opening is a microcosm for the whole movement – it is itself a palindrome, summarizing the ABCDCBA arch-like structure of the movement, as well as being the musical noise of a cricket, introducing the theme of nature which Bartók proceeds to explore. 4:00 is coldly expressive of this natural world, not depending solely on pitch for its effect, and 5:52 presents an uneasy synthesis of the invading, narrative-driven theme and the mystical, nocturnal world of the rest of the movement.

The finale seems to resolve the human problems of its antecedent, embodied in part by a more consonant reworking of the opening motto at 3:22. The movement gathers up the melodic threads of the work and gives them a new depth of meaning with its unbrookable onward flow. Moments such as 5:45 cast doubt on the overriding tone of the movement, but the riotous ending makes it seem like a totally natural outcome of the darkness that it follows.

This clean, precise recording comes from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine. Considering its dependence on three-dimensional perception for its spatial impact, live performance will always be preferable. However, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s reading with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, available on Sony, is particularly fine.

For an insight into Bartók’s incredible sense of proportion, the Fourth String Quartet is a particularly astonishing example, while the grandeur of the Concerto for Orchestra shows his exploration of scoring techniques adumbrated in Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Many works of the surprisingly contemporaneous Ralph Vaughan Williams provide a damper, more English perspective on folk music.

Artwork: Fighting Forms, Franz Marc

by Joel Sandelson