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SAMUEL BARBER (1910-1981)

Adagio from String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11

January 10, 2010 – Emerson String Quartet

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:

The Wave

As when far off in the middle of the ocean

A breast-shaped curve of wave begins to whiten

And rise above the surface, then rolling on

Gathers and gathers until it reaches land

Huge as a mountain and crashes among the rocks

With a prodigious roar, and what was deep

Comes churning up from the bottom in mighty swirls

Of sunken sand and living things and water . . .

So in the springtime every race of people

And all the creatures on earth or in the water,

Wild animals and flocks and all the birds

In all their painted colors, all rush to charge

Into the fire that burns them: love moves them all.

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.

By Michael Parloff

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