The score is dated September 7, 1936. It was commissioned by Paul Sacher to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Basel Chamber Orchestra (Bartók also wrote the Divertimento for Sacher three years later).
As its title suggests, the piece is written for string instruments (violins, violas, cellos and double basses), a celesta and a variety of percussion: xylophone, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, bass drum and timpani. There are also parts for piano and harp. Bartók divides the strings into two groups which he directs should be placed antiphonally on opposite sides of the stage. In the second and fourth movements, these two groups play different music.
The piece is in four movements, the first and third slow, the second and fourth quick:
Material from the first movement can be seen as serving as the basis for the later movements. The second movement is quick with a theme in 2/4 time which reappears in 3/8 time towards the end. The third movement is slow, an example of what is often called Bartók's "night music", and prominently features glissandi on the timpani, an unusual technique at the time of the work's composition. The last movement, which begins with notes on the timpani and strummed pizzicato chords on the strings, has the character of a lively folk dance. There is a reappearance of the opening fugue towards the work's end.
There is an interesting analysis of some formal aspects in Chapter 7 of Larry Solomon's Symmetry as a Compositional Determinant.
Bartók's next piece was the Sonata for two pianos and percussion, another work which gives a prominent role to percussion and keyboard instruments.