08 December 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Bartók: “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta”

It is often said that Karajan wasn’t all that interested in contemporary music and when he conducted it, his commitment to a specific piece wasn’t unswerving. Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” was written eleven years before Karajan conducted it for the first time in public.

Bartók himself was only three years dead. Karajan didn’t conduct it at a festival for modern music nor, in Hungary where the audiences were familiar with Bartók’s music (Bernstein did that in the same year and had a great success in Budapest) – the first occasion was a regular Vienna Philharmonic subscription concert in May 1948. Karajan the crowd pleaser? Not at all.

Although the piece had become quite well known in the years after its first performance “there were enough unreconstituted right-wingers in the Musikverein audience on 8 May for the concert interrupted by catcalls and fisticuffs. Still, it is an ill wind that blows no one any good. The rumpus in the Musikverein delighted the adventurous young manager of the Vienna Konzerthaus, Egon Seefehlner. […] Unlike a lot of people, Seefehlner was quick to see that Karajan was shy rather than arrogant, hard-working rather than bumptious. He knew, as he put it, that they were never going to be ‘chums’; but he fancied he could work with Karajan. It was a trust Karajan would repay handsomely down the years. (Richard Osborne)” (Seefehlner was Karajan’s successor as head of the Vienna State Opera between 1976 and 1986.)

Béla Bartók is one of the 20th century’s most famous composers. Born in Hungary in 1881, he started composing in an impressionist manner combined with elements of national Hungarian music (Liszt, Kodály) and developed a highly original style marked by fiery rhythms and the influence of folk music. With his friend Kodály he also collected over 10,000 folk songs in Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. In 1940 Bartók had to emigrate to the United States where he wrote several works for prominent commissioners (Kussewitzki, Menuhin, Primrose) but at the same time suffered from illness and lack of funds. On 26th September 1945, Bartók died of leukemia in New York.

Karajan’s first recording of the “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” in November 1949 was the second ever and one of his earliest with the newly founded Philharmonia Orchestra and its producer Walter Legge. Here’s a short clip with Karajan rehearsing the 3rd movement, we assume it is with the Philharmonia because he is speaking English.

Eleven years later, it was the same piece that formed the end of Karajan’s and Legge’s recording collaboration. The 1960 EMI recording with the Berlin Philharmonic was their last project. About Karajan’s last studio recording of the “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” for Deutsche Grammophon in 1969, Peter Uehling wrote in his Karajan biography:

“Karajan gets to the spirit of the music and thanks to his tonal imagination he discovers subtle transformations even in the fast movements with their folkloristic fury. Thus, he emphasizes the idiomatic richness of the score in which Hungarian tunes, highly complicated fugues, delicate sound visions, experimental courage and comprehensible expression combine to produce music of unique quality.”

Karajan performed the “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” 28 times in concert up to 1975.

The 3rd movement of the 1969 studio recording was used for a modern cinema classic, Stanley Kubrick’s “Shining”.

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

Peter Uehling: “Karajan. Eine Biographie” Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg. 2006

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