Composition Study Results: “Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta” by Bela Bartok
Analysis Written by Julian Lage
For my first composition study, I worked with the third movement of Bela Bartok’s “Music for Strings, Percussion, & Celesta.” What a badass piece….this movement is just shy of 7:00 minutes in length and has a unique sense of forward movement. It is always developing but at any giving point in the piece, it sounds like the music is standing still, like you’re witnessing this slowly moving musical realm revolve around an axis that is, on the surface, unknown.
here are some observations as well as questions that came up:
1. The piece begins with a clearly stated pulse that gradually speeds up and slows down. This establishes a sense of organic movement from the beginning and avoids making the piece sound too fixed or obvious from the start. Next, Bartok writes a drum roll in the timpani part that lasts for the first quarter of the piece, all the while developing melodies and counterpoint on top. The effect is a build of incredible tension that doesn’t quite get released until about 4 minutes in.
2. The melodic content seems to be very much based on an exploration of intervals. The main themes all utilize the major/minor seconds and minor thirds. In the longer melodic fragments, this allegiance to two relatively close intervals allows for a kind of loopy development where the line is constantly progressing but never repeating itself. Upon doing some research about Bartok’s style, I learned that this relationship to intervals stems from Bartok’s deep interest and fascination with the Golden Ratio and how it relates to all areas of music, especially with intervals and form.
3. Regarding orchestration, I especially loved how whenever a theme was represented, it was similar to the themes already under way, but just different enough to let it stand in it’s own space. The feeling I got from listening to this piece was that each instrument really had it’s own independent musical path and that rather than writing for everybody to play the same harmonies, rhythms, or melodies, Bartok takes advantages of multiple musical ideas occurring simultaneously. It’s as though the instruments aren’t obligated to agree with each other…they are simply allowed to coexist.
1. Bartok creates an entire sonic world that is at times both light and dark, aggressive and gentle, mysterious and extremely clear, yet it doesn’t seem to based in one tonal center or scale. How does he achieve this?
2. The form flows so naturally and organically, yet it doesn’t seem to be based on a set form, such as a sonata or rondo form. How does he make a form that is clearly structured but sounds almost improvised?
3. From what perspective does the piece unfold? It doesn’t seem like there is one instrument driving the composition forward, but rather like 4-5 combinations of orchestration that take turns being in the for front. For me, I’m used to writing withe the guitar as the clear leader, or perhaps cello or sax. How do you achieve this democratic style of writing while style maintaining a forward motion and edge?