The celesta or celeste is a keyboard percussion instrument. In appearance it is rather like a small piano and with a range of three to five octaves. It works by striking metal bars inside a resonating chamber when a key is depressed. Its sound is similar to a glockenspiel, bell-like and luminous but without the percussive attack of the mallet instruments. Larger models have a sustaining pedal. Its dynamic range is not great but its unique timbre allows it to be heard in quiet to moderately loud orchestral passages. The celesta is capable of playing anything idiomatic to keyboard instruments, and in orchestras a single performer will usually play both piano and celesta.
Music for the celesta is written on the grand staff like that for piano, with the upper and lower staves for the left and right-hand parts respectively.
The celesta is a transposing instrument in C, which is notated an octave lower than the sounding pitch.
The celesta is a member of the orchestral percussion family and is grouped with the other percussion staves in the score. As there is no standard top-to-bottom order for percussion instruments, we cannot specify exactly where to place it within this group, but below the timpani and unpitched percussion would seem a sensible suggestion. If the score features a piano, it would be wise to place it above or below this instrument, as the parts are often performed by the same player.
The celeste was invented in 1886 by Auguste Mustel, a harmonium builder. It was a development of an earlier instrument which struck tuning forks, and had too weak a sound to be of much use in the orchestra. Happily, the new instrument was quickly taken up by composers, firstly by Chausson in incidental theatre music, and by Tchaikovsky in The Voyevoda and The Nutcracker in 1892. This last work contains possibly the most celebrated use of the celeste, in the 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy'. Since the end of the nineteenth century the celeste has been a regular member of the orchestra and is frequently found in scores with medium to large percussion sections, particularly in opera. It has also been employed in smaller works such as Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, as well as film scores, where it has become the instrument of choice for creating a magical or otherworldly effect.
Very few compositions for solo celeste exist, possibly because of its limited volume and colouristic possibilities. As mentioned, however, the celeste is found quite frequently in orchestral scores. It is usually treated as the other percussion instruments would be; that is to say it is not commonly relied upon to provide the most prominent part of the texture, but rather as a colouristic resource or for special effects. A single percussionist will alternate between it and the piano unless there is a particularly extensive part for either instrument, and so the composer wishing to write for both instruments should bear in mind the practicalities of moving from one to the other. Any standard technique possible on the piano can be produced on the celeste, including tremolos, chords and fast runs of notes. Arpeggios, arabesques and doubling of another melodic instrument all work well in orchestral situations. If an important celeste solo is written, accompaniment should not be too overbearing, however the register of the instrument means it is capable of being heard in an orchestral tutti up to reasonably loud volumes.
Amplification of the celeste may be successful should the score call for it. Alternatively, most modern synthesizers can produce quite accurate samples of a celeste, which may be useful to groups whose instrumental or financial resources cannot accommodate a real instrument.
Notable compositions featuring the celeste
- Bela Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste
- Sofia Gubaidulina: Offertorium
- Ferde Grofe: Grand Canyon Suite
- Gustav Holst: The Planets (particularly 'Neptune')
- Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.6
- Ottorino Respighi: Trittico Botticelliano
- Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier and Ein Alpensinfonie
- Dimitri Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5
- Peter Il'lych Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker ballet and orchestral suite
- John Williams: film scores in the Harry Potter series
|Instruments and Voices|
|Woodwinds||Flute (Piccolo/Alto/Bass) • Recorder • Oboe (Cor Anglais/Oboe D'amore/Heckelphone) • Clarinet (E♭/Bass/Contrabass) •|
|Brass||Horn • Cornet • Trumpet • Trombone • Euphonium • Tuba • Saxhorns|
|Keyboards||Piano • Organ • Harmonium • Harpsichord • Clavichord • Celesta • Accordion|
|Percussion||Tuned: Timpani • Glockenspiel • Chimes • Vibraphone • Xylophone • Marimba • Crotales • Musical saw • Hammered Dulcimer|
|Electronic||Theremin • Ondes Martenot • Synthesizer • Electronic Wind Instrument|
|Stringed||Bowed: Violin • Viola • Violoncello • Contrabass|
|Voices||Female: Soprano • Mezzo-soprano (often mistaken with Alto) • Contralto (often mistaken with Alto)|