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On This Day – January 21

Today we look at a piece commissioned by Paul Sacher to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Basel Chamber Orchestra. Bela Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, premiered on this day in 1937.

Written for string instruments (string section plus harp), percussion (xylophone, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, bass drum and timpani) and celesta, it also include a piano. The strings are divided into two groups, to be placed antiphonally on opposite sides of the stage, and makes use of antiphonal effects in the second and fourth movements particularly. All written without a key signature, the movements are as follows:

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

A slow fugue opens the piece, with a constantly changing time signaure. Losely based around the note A, it begins on muted strings and as more voices enter it becomes thicker and louder until the climax. Mutes are only then removed, and the music becomes quieter over gentle celesta arpeggios, with the movement ending with the fugue subject played softly over its inversion. Material from this movement can be seen serving as the basis for later movements, and the fugue subject recurs in different guises at later points in the piece.

The second movement is quick, marked by loud syncopated piano and percussion accents in a whirling dance. The third movement is an example of what is often called Barkok’s Night Music, features timpani glissandi – unusual at the time of the works composition – and a prominant xylophone part.

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

This work has been featured in a number of films, and popular music as well. The second movement accompanies “Craig’s Dance of Despair and Disillusionment” in the film Being John Malkovich, where as the third was used as the theme music for The Vampira Show, as well as being featured in The Shining, and has also been sampled by the hip hop group Atmosphere on the song “Aspiring Sociopath“.

Here we have the NDR Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi performing this work at the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival in Lübeck, Germany in the summer of 2007.

And here is Atmosphere’s Aspiring Sociopath

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