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Celesta: Wikis


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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 Sugarplum Fairy" from The Nutcracker.

Celeste or celesta

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.[1] The following year, he used the celesta in passages in his ballet The Nutcracker (Op. 71, 1892), most notably in the "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy", which also appears in the derived Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a.

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).[2]

The Celesta is also notably used in Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 6. It is heard particularly in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th movements.

Gustav Holst employed the instrument in his orchestral work The Planets (premiered 1918), with its most significant use in the final movement, "Neptune, the Mystic." Béla Bartók uses the instrument prominently in his 1936 Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.

Use in other musical genres


Since its adoption by Earl Hines in 1928, the celesta has been used occasionally by jazz pianists as an alternative instrument. Fats Waller in the 1930s sometimes played the celesta with his right hand and the piano simultaneously with his left hand. Other notable jazz pianists who occasionally played the celesta include Meade "Lux" Lewis, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Sun Ra, and Herbie Hancock. A celesta provides the introduction to a song Louis Armstrong recorded for RCA entitled "Someday You'll Be Sorry", and is featured prominently throughout the song.

Rock and pop

While the celesta is not overly common in pop music, it sees it's fair share of use. The brunt of Frank Sinatra's 40s output for Columbia features the celesta (most notably "I'll Never Smile Again"), while the singer's critically lauded 50s LPs such as In the Wee Small Hours and Songs for Swingin' Lovers also make prominent use of the instrument. Other artists to use the celesta include The Stooges ("Penetration"), The Velvet Underground ("Sunday Morning"), The Beatles ("Baby, It's You"), The Beach Boys ("Girl Don't Tell Me"), Buddy Holly ("Everyday"), and Pink Floyd ("The Gnome" and a re-recording of"Mother").


A standard instrument used when music of a heavenly or dream-like quality is desired, the celesta has been commonplace in film soundtracks since the silent era. The celesta is featured playing the signature opening of "Pure Imagination", a well known song from the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (sung by Gene Wilder). Composer John Williams's scores for the first three Harry Potter films notably use the celesta to evoke the films' magical settings, particularly in the first two films' frequent statements of "Hedwig's Theme."

The opening of "Won't You Be My Neighbor", the theme song of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood", begins with a dreamy sequence on celesta. The tune was written by Fred Rogers in 1967 and was played by Johnny Costa who also played other keyboards on the show.

See also


  • "Celesta", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London, 2001).
  • "Celesta", The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, second edition, edited by Barry Kernfeld (London, 2002).


  1. ^ Freed, Richard. [LP Jacket notes.] Tchaikovsky: "Fatum," [...] "The Storm," [...] "The Voyevoda." Bochum Orchestra. Othmar Maga, conductor. Vox Stereo STPL 513.460. New York: Vox Productions, Inc., 1975.
  2. ^ Blades, James and Holland, James. "Celesta"; Gallois, Jean. "Chausson, Ernest: Works," Grove Music Online (Accessed 8 April 2006) (subscription required)

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