Bela Bartok

Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936)

Paul Sacher commissioned Bela Bartok to compose Music for Strings for the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Basle Chamber Orchestra in 1936, with the premiere given in Basle, Hungary on January 21, 1937, with Paul Sacher conducting. The work is in four movements, designated as follows:

  1. Andante tranquillo
  2. Allegro
  3. Adagio
  4. Allegro molto.

Despite the fact that the piece was composed during a time of extreme tension and crisis for Bartok, with the threat of Nazism from the West ultimately forcing him to emigrate to the U.S. in 1941, the musical work represents a pinnacle of abstract architectural expression, and in this aspect is directly related with other music of this period, particularly the Fourth and Fifth String Quartets. The close thematic integration which binds the piece together is based on a symmetrical structure which is manifest in the work on multiple levels, from the overall arrangement of the movements, to delineation of sections within movements, as well as the construction of the theme upon which the work is based.

The sonic relations of available resources is striking, with Bartok prefacing the score with a seating plan which divides two orchestras on either side of the conductor, with timpani, bass drum, cymbals, side drums, celesta, xylophone, piano and harp being placed in the middle. Bartok achieves a wide pallet of varying timbres through his creative orchestration technique that creates contrast while generating interest.

The first movement, based on a thematic statement which is divided into four segments which are themselves an expression of arch-form, is a strict fugue in which the only material used is the one theme, first stated by the violas. In a sense, the theme is a summary of the entire first movement and of the entire work as well. This theme defines the relation of the tritone in the work, which is also the range of the theme. While this phrase progresses from A to Eb and back again, this shape is mirrored in the structure of the entire movement, which reaches its point of maximum intensity and density exactly in the middle of the piece while sounding the note Eb, from which point the music recedes in the inversion, finally closing on a statement which is the miniature shape of the movement. This theme is used and developed throughout the remainder of the work, and functions as a point of return. The four segments of the theme are each developed in different ways in the proceeding three movements, providing additional ways of contrasting material which is itself unified.

The second movement is basically a sonata that is marked by episodic development of thematic material. Bartok's uses of isorhythms create strong accents as well as the illusion of resultant multi-meters. Among the more obvious Bartokian trademarks include his use of string pizzicato and glissando.

The Adagio is an excellent example of Bartok's "night-music." Various textures are organized into a six-part symmetrical form, with thematic material from the first movement functioning as transitional material.

The final movement is in rondo form, with its principle theme being based on the original theme of the first movement modified into a Lydian scale. Other aspects and material explored in the preceding three movements are recapitulated in a summary fashion, while Bartok briefly makes use of antiphony in a subtractive technique rhythmically.

Bartok's formal organization of a single phrase from which the rest of the piece is organized is certainly not without precedent in art music, but is significant in this work because it provides unity and is also aurally perceptible.

Throughout the work Bartok relies on Hungarian melodic material which forms the basis of his own melodies. Another aspect of Hungarian folk music which Bartok takes advantage of is the additive rhythms which he also uses developmentally, creating an overall sense of syncopation and forward drive. Bartok's use of Hungarian melodic and rhythmic resources is a trademark which permeates virtually all of his works, but his sense of formal organization and skill in handling these materials contrapuntally reaches a high level of refinement in Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.


Smith, Robert. "Bela Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, "Music Review 20 (August/November 1959).

Stevens, Halsey. The Life and Music of Bela Bartok. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Ujfalussy, Jozsef. Bela Bartok. Translated by Ruth Pataki. Corvina: Crescendo Publishing Company, 1971.