Day 36 – Bartok Music For Strings, Percussion and Celesta (CD 36)

I noticed two things about Bartok’s Music For Strings, Percussion and Celesta (well, three things, actually; I have no idea what a Celesta is):

First, this is creepy, moody music, and

Second, it’s creepy, moody music, some of which Stanley Kubrick used for his creepy, moody 1980 movie horror film The Shining.

In fact, in honor of today’s creepy, moody music, as well as its use in Kubrick’s The Shining, I put The Shining on in the background while I listened and typed.

Ooh, look. There’s the scene with Danny and “Tony” seeing (via the use of his “shining) the blood exiting the elevators, as well as the creepy twin sisters standing side by side in the hallway.

It’s a classic.

As for the third thing I didn’t know before today, according to it entry on Wikipedia, here’s what a Celesta is:

The celesta or celeste also called a bell-piano, is a struck idiophone operated by a keyboard. It looks similar to an upright piano (four- or five-octave), albeit with smaller keys and a much smaller cabinet, or a large wooden music box (three-octave). The keys connect to hammers that strike a graduated set of metal (usually steel) plates or bars suspended over wooden resonators. Four- or five-octave models usually have a damper pedal that sustains or damps the sound. The three-octave instruments do not have a pedal because of their small “table-top” design. One of the best-known works that uses the celesta is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from The Nutcracker.

The sound of the celesta is similar to that of the glockenspiel, but with a much softer and more subtle timbre. This quality gave the instrument its name, celeste, meaning “heavenly” in French. The celesta is often used to enhance a melody line played by another instrument or section. The delicate, bell-like sound is not loud enough to be used in full ensemble sections; as well, the celesta is rarely given standalone solos.

The celesta is a transposing instrument; it sounds one octave higher than the written pitch. Its four-octave sounding range is generally considered to be C4 to C8.


See? I’m learning more than just that Bartok created creepy, moody music!

The Objective Stuff

From his entry on Wikipedia,

Béla Viktor János Bartók (1881-1945) was a Hungarian composer, pianist, and ethnomusicologist. He is considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century; he and Franz Liszt are regarded as Hungary’s greatest composers. Through his collection and analytical study of folk music, he was one of the founders of comparative musicology, which later became ethnomusicology.

In 1909, at the age of 28, Bartók married Márta Ziegler (1893–1967), aged 16. Their son, Béla Bartók III, was born the next year. After nearly 15 years together, Bartók divorced Márta in June 1923. Two months after his divorce, he married Ditta Pásztory (1903–1982), a piano student, ten days after proposing to her. She was aged 19, he 42. Their son, Péter, was born in 1924.

Raised as a Catholic, by his early adulthood Bartók had become an atheist. He later became attracted to Unitarianism and publicly converted to the Unitarian faith in 1916. Although Bartók was not conventionally religious, according to his son Béla Bartók III, “he was a nature lover: he always mentioned the miraculous order of nature with great reverence.” As an adult, Béla III later became lay president of the Hungarian Unitarian Church.

Bartók’s music reflects two trends that dramatically changed the sound of music in the 20th century: the breakdown of the diatonic system of harmony that had served composers for the previous two hundred years; and the revival of nationalism as a source for musical inspiration, a trend that began with Mikhail Glinka and Antonín Dvořák in the last half of the 19th century. In his search for new forms of tonality, Bartók turned to Hungarian folk music, as well as to other folk music of the Carpathian Basin and even of Algeria and Turkey; in so doing he became influential in that stream of modernism which used indigenous music and techniques.

One characteristic style of music is his Night music, which he used mostly in slow movements of multi-movement ensemble or orchestral compositions in his mature period. It is characterised by “eerie dissonances providing a backdrop to sounds of nature and lonely melodies”. An example is the third movement (Adagio) of his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. His music can be grouped roughly in accordance with the different periods in his life.

From its entry on WIkipedia,

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.

The first movement is a slow fugue with a constantly changing time signature. The movement is based around the note A, on which the movement begins and ends. It begins on muted strings, and as more voices enter, the texture thickens and the music becomes louder until the 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. Material from the first movement can be seen as serving as the basis for the later movements, and the fugue subject recurs in different guises at points throughout the piece.

The second movement is quick, with a theme in 2//4 time which is transformed into
3/8 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. It is also commonly thought that the rhythm of the xylophone solo that opens the third movement is based on the Fibonacci sequence as this “written-out accelerando/ritardando” uses the rhythm 1:1:2:3:5:8:5:3:2:1:1.

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

Music For Strings merges with Kubrick’s The Shining around the 2:10-minute mark of Movement III (Adagio). That creepy-as-hell music is used in the scene featuring Danny riding his Big Wheel tricycle down the endless corridors, eventually stopping beside Room 237.

The first two tracks of this performance were recorded on December 28, 1958 at Orchestra Hall, Chicago. Why just two tracks? Did it take them all day to record two tracks? Or did they record other things on that day? Or was it a half day because of the Christmas holiday?

The second two movements of Music For Strings were recorded the following day, December 29, 1958.

From its entry on Wikipedia,

Hungarian Pictures, sometimes also referred to as Hungarian Sketches, Sz. 97, BB 103 (Hungarian: Magyar képek) is a suite for orchestra by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók finished in 1931. The suite consists of orchestrations of earlier short pieces for piano composed between 1908 and 1911.

The original piano pieces were created during Bartók’s journey around Romania and Hungary, when he started collecting and arranging folk music that further transformed his somewhat Lisztian early style into the style he came to develop. Therefore, many of the compositions from this period were either based on folk music or created from scratch with a reasonable resemblance to folk music. However, neither money nor widespread fame would be plentiful in his lifetime, as he had to struggle with a moderate opposition in his country to his modern style and some of his major works, such as The Miraculous Mandarin, being banned for years.

The Hungarian Sketches performances were recorded on December 29, 1958.

The Subjective Stuff

Recording quality: 5
Overall musicianship: 5
CD booklet notes: 2
CD “album cover” information: 4 (lots of tiny type as well as a photo of Bartok and Reiner)
How does this make me feel: 3.5 (Music for Strings) / 4.5 (Hungarian Sketches)

Bartok is an acquired taste – one that I haven’t yet acquired.

As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer music from the Classic period, stuff that’s very well composed, lush, sweeping, grand, and creative in its depth, not necessarily in its time changes and use of strange instruments.

I found Music For Strings to be extremely creative. But not easy to listen to. To my ears, it sounds like discordant sounds, barely strung together. Creepy, moody sounds, to be sure. But more like a soundtrack to a horror film then music I’d listen to on a regular basis.

Hungarian Sketches, on the other hand, was more like Classical-period music, plus it had elements of Folk Music in it. Swineheard’s Dance from Urog (Movement V), for example, was energetic and just plain fun. Bear Dance (Movement II) sounded like bears dances. Perhaps a little too on the nose. But it definitely conveyed the image of members of the Ursidae family bustin’ a move.

I could listen to Hungarian Sketches again. But I’d only listen to Music For Strings again if I wanted to show people where Stanley Kubrick got his creepy, moody music.

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