Samuel Barber - Adagio from String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11
Samuel Barber's poignant Adagio for Strings, heard here in its original form for string quartet, is perhaps the most well-known American composition of the 20th Century. Barber conceived the work as the second movement of his 1936 string quartet. He then arranged it for string orchestra after learning that the eminent Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini was looking for American music to feature in his 1938 season with the NBC Orchestra. Barber sent his arrangement to Toscanini along with a newly composed work, Essay for Orchestra. Months passed, and the scores were finally returned without comment. The disappointed Barber assumed that Toscanini had rejected the pieces.
In fact, Toscanini had been so impressed that he had memorized the works and no longer needed the scores. He premiered them in a live, coast-to-coast NBC radio broadcast on November 5, 1938. The sensational response to Adagio for Strings catapulted the 26-year-old Samuel Barber to overnight fame. The success of Toscanini's subsequent recording of the work (its seven-minute length made it ideal for the 78 rpm format of the day) sealed its popularity with the public. Barber eventually made additional arrangements of the piece, including a setting of the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) for 8-part choir.
Ever since April of 1945, when Adagio for Strings was performed during the radio announcement of Franklin D. Roosevelt's death, the work's contemplative dignity has established it as an anthem of national mourning. The Adagio was also performed at the funerals of John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein, and Prince Rainier of Monaco, and it was often heard at memorial events in the days following the attacks of September 11, 2001. The piece has also served as a haunting accompaniment for numerous films, including David Lynch's The Elephant Man and Oliver Stone's Platoon.
In fact, Barber did not compose the piece in the spirit of mourning or lament. Marked Molto adagio espressivo cantando (very slowly, with songlike expressiveness), he considered it to be an intimate meditation and was inspired by a short, passionate poem from Virgil's Aeneid, presented below in a translation by Robert Pinsky:
As when far off in the middle of the ocean
So in the springtime every race of people
The arch form of the Adagio perfectly captures the poetic image of an ever-expanding sea swell, rising inexorably to a massive climax and then, having spent its accumulated force, rapidly dissipating. The piece unfolds organically from a pianissimo melodic cell first heard in the first violin. The theme weaves its way through the string texture as the dynamics gradually increase and the music ascends into the highest instrumental registers. An intense, sustained fortissimo climax is followed by a moment of silence and then a soothing pianissimo reiteration of the climactic chords two octaves below. A few peaceful transitional chords bring the music back to the original melodic motive, heard in the first violin and doubled an octave below by the viola. The musical journey ends in resignation, as the first five notes of the piece are slowly reiterated in the lowest register of the violin over a simple, sustained, F-Major triad.
Felix Mendelssohn - String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80
Felix Mendelssohn grew up with every familial and material advantage, and he made the most of his unique opportunities. He composed brilliantly from an early age and developed astonishing virtuosity as a pianist, organist, and conductor. Highly educated, he loved literature, poetry, and philosophy and became an adept linguist, painter, and writer. His ever-supportive father, Abraham, a wealthy banker, bought a magnificent estate in Berlin, which he turned into an artistic focal point of the culturally rich city. Distinguished artists, literary figures, and well-to-do colleagues attended the Mendelssohn family's salon concerts, where the children performed, often playing their own music with full orchestras hired by their father. A child prodigy on the order of Mozart, Felix was admired by no less a figure than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who told the boy, "I am Saul and you are David. Come to me when I am sad and discouraged and quiet my soul with your sweet harmonies."
Felix's older sister Fanny was - like Mozart's older sister, Nannerl - also a child prodigy of remarkable capabilities. At 13 Fanny scored a Händel Oratorio for full orchestra as an exercise, and as a birthday gift for her father, she memorized and performed all 24 Preludes from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Although her compositional skills were not encouraged to the same degree as her brother's, she wrote 466 pieces of her own over the course of her life.
While the Mozart siblings eventually grew apart, Felix and Fanny grew increasingly devoted to each other during their short lives. There was never a hint of rivalry or jealousy between them. On the contrary, they dedicated many works to each other, advocated for each other's music, and expressed extreme mutual fondness and admiration throughout their lives.
When in 1847 Felix received the news of his beloved sister's sudden death by a massive stroke, he was so devastated that he immediately suffered a stroke of his own. Unable to attend her funeral, he sank into a profound depression. His wife insisted that he take time off from his daunting performance and administrative schedule to travel with their family to the Interlaken region of Switzerland, where he could regain his physical health and emotional equilibrium. While in Switzerland, he spent his days hiking in the mountains, making watercolors and drawings of the Swiss landscape, and composing his string quartet in F minor, which he completed in September of that year. Soon after returning to Germany, however, his inconsolable grief came back to him. He suffered another stroke and within two months was dead at the age of 38.
The F-Minor String Quartet, his last completed work, expresses his rage and despair at the loss of his beloved sister. Although Mendelssohn's music is admired for its flawless technique and aura of classical refinement, some have criticized it for showing too much emotional restraint. The F-minor quartet completely belies this portrayal. It is, from beginning to end, a work of unprecedented intensity and turbulence, arguably his most impassioned and tragic work.
The opening movement begins in a burst of violent, shuddering tremolos, clearly representing the shock and grief he must have felt when he was first informed of his beloved sister's death. Thunderbolt-like fortissimos and stomping accents express the depth of his despair. The music is riven by extreme contrasts as Mendelssohn tries to calm himself, only to be wrenched anew by the slashing pain of loss. Toward the end of the movement a unison outburst ratchets the intensity up another notch, and the movement careens to a desperate conclusion.
A Scherzo follows, but not the typically light, "Mendelssohnian" Scherzo of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The mood is operatic in its agitation, with fierce, off-kilter syncopations, heavy accents, and severe passages where the entire quartet again plays in unison. The contrasting Trio introduces a Verdian ghost dance in the viola and cello, which accompany a low, ominous violin duet. After returning to the agitated Scherzo, the ghosts slink off in a spooky, phantasmal coda.
The Adagio is a warmly nostalgic song without words, reminiscent of the intimate piano pieces that Felix and Fanny wrote and often dedicated to each other. Closely woven string textures reflect their tight emotional bond. Although the movement begins as a wistful elegy, it builds to a cathartic fortissimo climax in which funereal, dotted rhythms predominate. The intensity gradually recedes although the dotted rhythms continue to echo through the texture, and the movement ends in a sweetly resigned pianissimo.
Desperation and drama return full force in the final movement of the quartet. Shivering passagework is interrupted by crashing, dissonant chords. Extreme virtuosity is demanded of the four quartet members as Mendelssohn's final work drives headlong toward a tragic conclusion.
Antonín Dvořák - String Quartet No. 14 in A-Flat, Op. 105
Born of rustic peasant stock, Antonín Dvořák began life as an apprentice butcher in a small Bohemian village near Prague. Although he grew to be one of the world's most celebrated and admired composers, he never forgot his humble roots. For all of his worldliness, sophistication, and inexhaustible gifts, Dvořák remained firmly rooted in the soil of his native Bohemia throughout his life.
In 1892, when he was 51 and at the height of his fame, Dvořák was invited by Mrs. Jeannette Thurber to move to New York City to head the newly established National Conservatory of Music. Mrs. Thurber, the wife of a wealthy grocer who had endowed the school, found in Dvořák a world-renowned musical figure to organize the program, attract a highly qualified faculty, and help establish an indigenously American style of music-making. In Dvořák's own words, Mrs. Thurber brought him to New York to "discover what young Americans had in them, and to help them express it."
The National Conservatory was forward-looking in its admissions policies, welcoming African Americans and other minorities. While in New York and during his summer travels to the Czech community in Spillville, Iowa, Dvořák became acquainted with African American spirituals and Native American folk music. He was impressed by what he heard and incorporated the influence into much of the music that he composed during his three years in America, most famously his ninth symphony ("From the New World") and his F-Major string quartet ("The American").
Despite his fascination with life in America and the hearty reception that he received, he never stopped feeling homesick for his beloved Bohemia. Finally, in April of 1895, he and his family sailed back to Europe, never to return to America. During his final weeks in New York City, he began to sketch out two string quartets, one in G major and the other in A-flat major. These were completed upon his return to Prague and reflected his joy on returning to his homeland. The Quartet in A-Flat, his last piece for that instrumental combination, is a work of supreme mastery, a life-affirming tour de force.
The first movement begins in a deceptively somber mood, perhaps a reflection of Dvořák's nostalgic state of mind during his final days in America. A portentous, A-flat minor motive is passed sequentially from the cello upward through the ranks to the first violin, only to be interrupted by fierce, dissonant chords. The ominous atmosphere is suddenly ameliorated by the first violin, which whips the motive into a bright A-flat major, immediately transforming the mood into one of jaunty good cheer. One can easily envision Dvořák strolling contentedly down the streets of his beloved Prague. From this point on, the movement sails forth in a dancing, lighthearted mode. The melancholy opening cello motive returns for a moment at the end of the movement but is now transformed teasingly into a subtle musical joke by Dvořák's sophisticated use of harmony.
A lively Scherzo and Trio follows. Again reflecting the joy of homecoming, the Scherzo is cast in the taut, snapping rhythms of a Furiant, a popular Czech folkdance featuring shifting accents and alternating metrical groupings. The contrasting Trio is smooth and lyrical, with long, arching melodic duets between various instrumental combinations played over a gently sustained accompaniment.
Dvořák offers in the third movement a tender, deeply felt hymm of thanksgiving. The atmosphere of consolation and religiosity gradually devolves into a disconcerting moment of silence, which is followed by a pensive, chromatic interlude over a pulsing pedal tone in the cello. The intensity and emotional temperature rise until a fortissimo climax has been reached, after which the music gradually returns to the tranquil, prayer-like melody of the first section, now accompanied by gentle pizzicatos in the viola and bass and skittering filigree in the second violin. The movement ends in a moment of transcendent reconciliation, as the unsettled music of the interlude is subtly blended with the consoling hymm of thanksgiving.
The last movement begins with a breathless melodic fragment in the cello. The 2nd violin and viola pounce on it in a startling burst of tremolo, but the first violin again corrals the music back into a sunny A-flat major, defusing the tension and transforming the mood into one of pure joy. Dvořák builds an exuberant finale out of humble components, just as he embraces his rustic Bohemian roots and uses them as the basis of a work of unsurpassed sophistication and maturity. At the end he throws the music into the highest gear of intensity and races to an ebullient, virtuosic conclusion.
- Michael Parloff, 2009