Schumann and Bartók
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, BB114
  • Bartók demonstrates the spectrum of sound colors available without winds or brass
  • He treats piano, xylophone, and celesta as pitched percussion
  • The harp becomes part of the string family
  • Listen hazy washes of sound and brilliant cloudbursts of exuberant joy

    As the shadow of Nazism lengthened over Europe in the mid-1930s, Béla Bartók dug in his heels. A fierce opponent of Fascism, he refused to perform concerts in Nazi Germany, and declined radio broadcast performances of his compositions in Germany or Italy. At the same time, his fierce loyalty to his own country, and his love of Central Europe’s rich musical heritage, resurfaced in his compositions.

    Early in his career, he and Zoltán Kodály had conducted important ethnomusicological research into the folk music of remote regions of Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania. Many of these indigenous songs and dances had never been notated; they were passed by oral tradition from one generation to the next. Bartók’s and Kodály’s early music incorporated melodies and dance rhythms from these regions.

    During the 1910s and 1920s, Bartók went through a more expressionist period, embracing a harsher, more dissonant harmonic language. In the 1930s, he evolved toward a more homogeneous style, returning to modal or diatonic harmonies. Borrowing anew from the Eastern European folk music he had researched in his youth; he drew these elements together in rigorously organized formal units. His Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta is a prime example.

    The piece was Bartók’s first commission from Paul Sacher, conductor of the Basel Chamber Orchestra and a significant patron of new music in Europe. (Sacher also commissioned works by Stravinsky, Martinů, Honegger, and Hindemith. He eventually commissioned three more works from Bartók.) He requested this first piece from Bartók in honor of the Orchestra’s 10th anniversary.

    Bartók had always had an affinity for precise sound effects in both pitched and unpitched percussion instruments. In Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, he uses percussion sparingly yet with immense imagination and coloristic variety. The string writing benefitted from the additional experience he had gained through writing his Third, Fourth, and Fifth String Quartets. For this work, he divided the strings into two antiphonal groups, maximizing the possibilities for complex textures and throwing the different string registers into sharp relief.

    The overall structure is slow-fast-slow-fast. The second movement is the closest to a traditional sonata-allegro form, and the slow third movement is an arch, a form that Bartók favored increasingly. What emerges most clearly is the stark contrast between misty washes of sound – the two slow movements –   and a vigorous embrace of exuberant dance rhythms and clear snippets of melody.

    Perhaps most fascinating is Bartók’s sparing and subtle use of the percussion family, particularly in the slow movements. For example, the opening Andante tranquillo starts with violas, who are joined in canonic entrances by violins, then the cellos, eventually expanding to six parts. Not until several minutes in does the timpani make a first appearance with a slow rumble, but it evaporates, letting the strings continue their buildup in dense counterpoint. Cymbals and celesta sound briefly, the one interrupting and the other enhancing the mysterious, otherworldly atmosphere.

    Bartók’s Allegro challenges the antiphonal strings with virtuosic writing. The inherent energy is driven, frenzied, sometimes violent, but also with moments of delicacy. Piano and xylophone provide color and punctuation, while Bartók treats harp as a member of the string family.

    Timpani and xylophone open the symmetrical Adagio [A-B-C-B-A]. Sliding strings herald an episode of "night music," a distinctive, recurrent aspect of Bartók's style from the mid-1920s on.  Something of a misnomer, the term more accurately refers to the mysterious, almost supernatural sounds of the night as it gives way to daybreak, at the moment when nature is coming alive.  Always fascinated by the sounds of nature, Bartók frequently incorporated twittering, chirping, buzzing effects into his music. In Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta, he uses high solo violins, celesta, harp, piano, and tremolandi strings to establish nature’s magical shimmer. Careful listeners may catch snippets of the first movement theme, which recurs as transitions between the five sections.

    That same first movement theme recurs more recognizably in the finale, a resolutely positive conclusion to this diverse composition. Toward the end, Bartók restates the opening fugue subject, now transformed to diatonic language. That transformation enables a brilliant closing flourish in bright A major.

    The score calls for timpani, bass drum, two pair of cymbals, snare drum, side drum without snares, tam tam, xylophone, harp, celesta, piano, double strings.

    Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
    Symphony No.2 in C major, Op.61
    • Listen carefully to the slow introduction; you’ll hear it themes in the allegro that follows
    • Watch how fast the strings are bowing in the second movement scherzo. They need the break of those two contrasting trios!
    • Schumann likes to combine two melodies together, and frequently introduces new themes

    Schumann's symphonies are less frequently programmed than those of his contemporaries and friends Mendelssohn and Brahms.  The Second Symphony has fallen in and out of favor. Listening to it, one is hard-pressed to fathom why we do not hear it more often.  It has nobility, a formal integrity rare in mature Schumann, and brilliant touches sprinkled throughout, both in melodies and in scoring.

    Although it is numbered second, the C major symphony was actually the third that Schumann composed.  The D minor Symphony, Op.120, preceded it, but Schumann revised it ten years later and published it long after this work. His Second Symphony finds its primary models in the works of Beethoven and Mendelssohn; indeed, especially in the outer movements, this is the most Beethovenian of Schumann's four symphonies.

    It opens with a mini-fanfare:  a rising fifth in dotted rhythm, delivered by the trumpets to inaugurate a slow introduction.  Simultaneously with this affirmative gesture -- whose motive recurs throughout the symphony -- the strings provide commentary and accompaniment with a questioning, uncertain and exploratory idea in singular contrast to the proud brass.  Right away, in the opening measures, we hear the inherent conflict and duality that characterizes so much of Schumann's music, and in microcosm describes the panoply of moods he explores in his four movements.  Schumann's diversity of musical atmosphere is the more remarkable because all four movements are in the key of C.

    Schumann's slow introduction leads to a lively Allegro ma non troppo dominated by dotted rhythm.  His aggressive rhythmic profile proclaims the victory of the positive brass theme over the doleful intonations from the strings.  The development section is fraught with warring elements, little dramas both public and private, as Schumann wrestles with the shadow play of dark and light implied in his opening bars.  His recapitulation is fiercely affirmative, with a splendid, virile climax.

    The Scherzo, placed second in emulation of the Beethovenian Ninth Symphony model, is a virtuoso perpetuum mobile for strings.  Nervous and fleet, it communicates an undercurrent of driven energy more motoric than elfin.  He balances the frenetic stream of sixteenth notes by interpolating two contrasting trios instead of one, following his own successful model from the "Spring" Symphony, Op. 38 (1841) and the Piano Quintet, Op. 44 (1842).

    Schumann's slow movement is a standout, calling forth the most soulful and melancholic side of his nature.  When the Hamburg music director wrote to him in 1849 requesting interpretive guidance for this work, Schumann replied:

    I sometimes fear my semi-invalid state can be divined from the music.  I began to feel more myself when I wrote the last movement and was certainly much better when I finished the whole work.  All the same it reminds me of dark days.  Your interest in a work so stamped with melancholy proves your real sympathy....I was greatly delighted to find that my mournful bassoon in the Adagio was not lost upon you, for I confess I wrote that part for it with peculiar pleasure.

    In addition to the bassoon solo, Schumann also casts special spotlights on oboe and clarinet, and provides a deliciously romantic moment for horn.  The Adagio reaches its climax on a spine-tingling series of violin trills that have enormous effect.

    The finale has strong echoes of the slow movement theme, plus an emphasis on dotted rhythms that harks back to the opening movement. The lengthy coda is all positive affirmation, a valiant declaration of victory over any doubts or shadows cast earlier.  While it may not match the spectacular success of his two inner movements, Schumann's finale argues convincingly that he was indeed a composer who could subjugate uncontrolled impulse in favor of structural clarity.

    The score calls for woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs, three trombones, timpani and strings.

    © Laurie Shulman, 2020