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27 September 2010

A concerto for a one-trick pony - exploring the celesta

A concerto for a one-trick pony - exploring the celesta
© Gregory Maxwell - Wikimedia Commons

'While commonly used instruments like the piano and the violin continue to offer new sonic and expressive resources, there is a particularly exciting challenge for a composer in writing for an instrument without much existing repertoire' writes Elliott Gyger, who has just completed an unusual concerto. His Angels and Insects, a work to be premiered in Melbourne on 20 October, is written for celesta and chamber orchestra.

The celesta is most often thought of as a special effect, a distinctive orchestral colour but pretty much a one-trick pony. However, a survey of the great celesta passages in the repertoire reveals more potential variety than one might at first suspect - from glittering virtuosity to icy calm, playful grace to eerie radiance - and experimentation with the instrument itself opens up further possibilities. As signalled in the title Angels and Insects (borrowed from A. S. Byatt), my new concerto explores familiarly transcendent roles for the instrument alongside unexpected reserves of quirkiness and volatile energy.

Celestas are not particularly common instruments, being owned only by large musical organisations such as professional orchestras, conservatoria and major venues. Unfortunately, they also tend to be poorly maintained, as they are used only a few times a year, and seldom by dedicated specialists or in a context where the instrument is featured for more than a few bars. As a result of this neglect, timbre, touch and volume may end up quite inconsistent from one note to the next - which is perhaps part of the charm, but poses additional challenges for the player!

Some surprising things about the celesta:

  • Its timbre and attack characteristics vary considerably across the range, from mellow and almost "woody" at the bottom, through clear and well-rounded in the middle, to a definite metallic edge at the top. Standard orchestral and chamber writing makes little if any use of these registral contrasts.
  • Unlike on the piano, depressing the sustain pedal makes absolutely no difference to the colour; the celesta's metal bars are too rigid to create any sympathetic resonance.
  • The dynamic range of any given note is quite narrow, but there is a direct correlation between the number of notes struck and the volume of the sound (as with the harpsichord and the organ). The composer must therefore take density and chordal spacing into account in order to create stronger dynamic contrasts.
  • Rapid repetition of a single note can be problematic, as the escape action is not well developed and regulated; repeated attacks can actually have the result of damping the sound. On the other hand, trills and tremolos are extremely effective - and indispensable in building up the fullest possible sonority.
  • Almost all celesta writing in the standard repertoire is homophonic; the melody and accompaniment texture in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is atypically contrapuntal! However, the instrument is capable of considerably more developed textures, within the limits of the relatively short sustain time.

Rather than seeing balance between the solo instrument and the orchestra as a problem to be solved, Angels and Insects takes the solo role of the celesta as the stimulus for a distinctive transparency and fluidity in scoring. The opening of the work uses the most delicate possible timbres - triangles, string tremolos on harmonics, woodwind in carefully chosen registers - to colour the celesta sound, only gradually emerging from within it. In some later passages the celesta is absorbed into the orchestral fabric, but much of the piece is conceived as chamber music, with the celesta in dialogue with solo woodwind and the first-desk string players, while in more forceful sections the soloist and orchestra are mostly heard in alternation. The orchestra is neither subordinate to nor deployed against the celesta, but acts most often as an amplification of it - a model of concerto interaction closer to that of the 18th century than of the 19th or early 20th, but one also explored in recent decades by Ligeti and Berio.

While commonly used instruments like the piano and the violin continue to offer new sonic and expressive resources, there is a particularly exciting challenge for a composer in writing for an instrument without much existing repertoire. In exploring the limits of what might be practical or effective, there are opportunities to uncover hidden and perhaps unsuspected facets of the instrument's personality.

Event details

University of Melbourne Chamber Orchestra
Andrew Litton, conductor
Music by Gyger (world premiere of Angels and Insects - Concerto for Celesta and Chamber Orchestra), Copland, Ives, Schuman
20 October 2010
Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne, VIC
Full event info (AMC Calendar)

Further links

Elliott Gyger - AMC profile

Subjects discussed by this article:

Elliott Gyger is a Lecturer in Composition at the University of Melbourne. Apart from the celesta, other neglected instruments featured in his music to date include oboe d'amore and E flat clarinet.


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