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Celesta or celeste
Keyboard instrument
Inventor(s) Victor Mustel, Auguste Mustel
Developed 1860, 1886

The celesta or celeste is a struck idiophone operated by a keyboard. It looks similar to an upright piano (four- or five-octave), or a large wooden music box (three-octave). The keys connect to hammers that strike a graduated set of metal (usually steel) plates suspended over wooden resonators. Four- or five-octave models usually have a pedal that sustains or damps the sound. The three-octave instruments do not have a pedal because of their small "table-top" design. One of the best-known works that uses the celesta is Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from The Nutcracker.

The sound of the celesta is similar to that of the glockenspiel, but with a much softer and more subtle timbre. This quality gave the instrument its name, celeste meaning "heavenly" in French.

The celesta is a transposing instrument; it sounds an octave higher than the written pitch. Its (four-octave) sounding range is generally considered as C4 to C8, where C4 = middle C. The original French instrument had a five-octave range, but because 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.


  • History 1
  • Use in other musical genres 2
    • Jazz 2.1
    • Rock and pop 2.2
    • Soundtrack 2.3
  • See also 3
  • Notes 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


A German celesta from 1920

The celesta was invented in 1886 by 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 it wasn't loud enough to use in an orchestra.

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 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).[2]

The celesta is also notably used in An American in Paris. Ferde Grofe also wrote an extended cadenza for the instrument in the third movement of his Grand Canyon Suite.

20th Century American composer Morton Feldman used the celesta in many of his large-scale pieces such as Crippled Symmetry and For Philip Guston, and it figured in much of his orchestral music and other pieces as well.

The celesta is used in many 20th century opera scores, including Puccini's Tosca (1900), Ravel's L'heure espagnole (1911), Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), and Die Frau ohne Schatten (1918), while "an excellent example of its beauty when well employed", is the Silver Rose scene in his Der Rosenkavalier (1911),[3] Busoni's Arlecchino (1917) and Doktor Faust (1925), Orff's Der Mond (1939), Menotti's Amelia Goes to the Ball (1937), Britten's The Turn of the Screw (1954) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), Susa's Transformations (1973), and Philip Glass' Akhnaten (1984).

The keyboard glockenspiel part in Mozart's The Magic Flute is nowadays played by a celesta.[4]

Use in other musical genres

An upright piano (left) and celesta (right) compared


Since Earl Hines took it up in 1928, other jazz pianists have occasionally used the celesta as an alternative instrument. In the 1930s, Fats Waller sometimes played celesta with his right hand and 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, Buddy Greco, Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Sun Ra, Keith Jarrett, and Herbie Hancock. A celesta provides the introduction to Someday You'll Be Sorry, a song Louis Armstrong recorded for RCA, and is featured prominently throughout the piece. A number of recordings Frank Sinatra made for Columbia in the 1940s feature the instrument (namely I'll Never Smile Again),[5] as do many of his albums recorded for Capitol in the 1950s (In the Wee Small Hours, Close to You and Songs for Swingin' Lovers).[6] The instrument is used prominently in the introduction to the 1928 recording by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five of Basin Street Blues.

Rock and pop

While the celesta is not overly common in popular music, it has been used now and again. Other artists who have recorded with the instrument include Buddy Holly ("Everyday"[7]), The Beatles ("Baby It's You"[8]), The Beach Boys ("Girl Don't Tell Me"), The Velvet Underground ("Sunday Morning"[9]), Nick Drake ("Northern Sky"), King Crimson ("Cadence and Cascade"), The Stooges (Penetration[10]) and Pink Floyd ("The Gnome" and the re-recorded version of "Mother", used in the movie The Wall.) Icelandic singer Björk commissioned an instrument, dubbed the Gameleste, a hybrid between a Gamelan and a Celeste for her 2011 album Biophilia, which Icelandic band Sigur Rós borrowed for their album Takk.[11] The lead singer Jonsi used a Celesta in Go Quiet, the acoustic version of his solo album Go. Avenged Sevenfold used one in their introduction to the title song "Nightmare" on their 2010 album. A celesta accompanies Tina Dico on her acoustic version of "Break of Day," heard on the album Welcome Back Colour. [12] In 1971, Rod Stewart used a Celeste on his No.1 hit song Maggie May from the album, Every Picture Tells A Story, and later on the Paul McCartney song, "Mine For Me" off Rod Stewart's 1973 album, Smiler. Eels use it in many of their songs ("Novocaine for the Soul", "Flyswatter", "Trouble with Dreams", etc.). Italian seventies progressive rock band Celeste named the band after the instrument.


The celesta has been common in cinema for decades. In addition to supplementing numerous soundtrack orchestrations for films of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, the celesta has occasionally been spotlighted to invoke a whimsical air. Celesta provides the signature opening of Pure Imagination, a well-known song (sung by Gene Wilder) from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Composer John Williams's scores for the first three Harry Potter films feature the instrument, particularly in the first two films' frequent statements of "Hedwig's Theme".

The theme song to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Won't You be My Neighbor?, begins with a dreamy sequence on celesta. The song was written by Fred Rogers and played by Johnny Costa.

The original version of the familiar Think! theme from the popular game show Jeopardy! has a celesta lead in the first verse. It was composed by Merv Griffin, and it was used during the Art Fleming era and the first thirteen seasons of the current Alex Trebek syndicated version.

See also


  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)
  3. ^ Luttrell, Guy L. (1979). The Instruments of Music, p.165. Taylor & Francis.
  4. ^ "An Overview of Yamaha Celestas" retrieved 13 March 2012
  5. ^ "All Or Nothing At All: A Life of Frank Sinatra",
  6. ^ "500 Greatest Albums of All Time, 100/500: In the Wee Small Hours – Frank Sinatra",
  7. ^ "Everyday by Buddy Holly",
  8. ^ "'Baby It's You' History",
  9. ^ "Lou Reed—Sunday Morning",
  10. ^ (August 27, 2010). "Iggy Pop keeps Stooges raw, real",
  11. ^ "Takk... documentary",
  12. ^ Welcome Back Colour (Finest Gramophone FINEST19CD, 2010) liner notes


  • "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).

External links

  • "The Celesta: The Sound of the Sugar Plum Fairy", by Miles Hoffman. Listen on
  • "Songs for Celesta", by Marc Sanchez
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