The celesta (pronounced /sɨˈlɛstə/) or celeste (pronounced /sɨˈlɛst/) is a struck idiophone operated by a keyboard. Its appearance is similar to that of an upright piano (four- or five-octave) or of a large wooden music box (three-octave). The keys are connected to hammers which strike a graduated set of metal (usually steel) plates suspended over wooden resonators. On four or five octave models one pedal is usually available to sustain or dampen the sound. The three-octave instruments do not have a pedal, due to their small "table-top" design. One of the best-known works that makes use of the celesta is Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from The Nutcracker.
The sound of the celesta is akin to that of the glockenspiel, but with a much softer and more subtle timbre. This quality gave rise to the instrument's name, celeste meaning "heavenly" in French.
The celesta is a transposing instrument; it sounds an octave higher than the written pitch. The original French instrument had a five-octave range, but as the lowest octave was considered somewhat unsatisfactory, it was omitted from later models. The standard French four-octave instrument is now gradually being replaced in symphony orchestras by a larger, five-octave German model. Although it is a member of the percussion family, in orchestral terms it is more properly considered as a member of the keyboard section and usually played by a keyboardist. The celesta part is normally written on two bracketed staves, called a grand staff.
The celesta was invented in 1886 by the Parisian harmonium builder Auguste Mustel. His father, Victor Mustel, had developed the forerunner of the celesta, the typophone or the dulcitone, in 1860. This consisted of struck tuning forks instead of metal plates, but the sound produced was considered too small to be of use in an orchestral situation.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky is usually cited as the first major composer to use this instrument in a work for full symphony orchestra. He first used it in his symphonic poem The Voyevoda, Op. posth. 78, premiered in November 1891. The following year, he used the celesta in passages in his ballet The Nutcracker (Op. 71, 1892), most notably in the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy", which also appears in the derived Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a. However, Ernest Chausson preceded Tchaikovsky by employing the celesta in December 1888 in his incidental music, written for a small orchestra, for La tempête (a French translation by Maurice Bouchor of Shakespeare's The Tempest). The celesta is also notably used in Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 6, particularly in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th movements. Gustav Holst employed the instrument in his 1918 orchestral work The Planets, particularly in the final movement, "Neptune, the Mystic". It also features prominently in Béla Bartók's 1936 Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.
Full article ▸