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Program Notes & Synopses

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Barber: Adagio for Strings

Barber: Adagio for Strings


649 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2012 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Adagio for Strings
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
string orchestra

Composed 1936. First performance: November 5, 1938, New York. Arturo Toscanini, conductor.

Samuel Barber was miffed. Arturo Toscanini had asked to see his latest score. Now, just a few days later, the conductor had returned it without comment. Gian Carlo Menotti, seeing how hurt Barber was, diplomatically sought an explanation. The maestro’s answer was simple: he was returning the score out of courtesy before leaving for a concert tour; he had already memorized the piece and scheduled a performance.

On November 5, 1938, Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra introduced the Adagio for Strings to the world in a broadcast from Rockefeller Center. Toscanini summed up the work in three words: “semplice e bella.”

Simple and beautiful.

This piece strips music to bare essentials: a single melodic line atop a chordal accompaniment. Such an exposed texture is deceptively challenging for a composer; without recourse to the usual orchestrational and contrapuntal tricks, each individual note is of vital significance.

The key to the Adagio’s emotional impact lies in its harmonic tension. A sustained melodic line sits exposed and alone for two long beats until the harmony finally lends its support. When the melody does move, it does so in small steps, striving again and again to climb, only to fall back as it fails to reach its goal. Yet with each attempt, it manages to stretch just a bit closer. Beneath this struggle, the lower strings provide a harmonic foundation, but, as in Renaissance motets, the individual voices rarely move at the same time; movement in one voice creates delayed reactions in the others. This uneasy chain of harmonic suspensions never fully resolves until, after some six minutes of struggle, the lines finally unite in a moment of transcendent grandeur, leaving the music gasping for breath in the pause that follows. A moment of silence, and we find ourselves back where we started. But the momentum can never be regained, and the strains fade into silence.

The Adagio for Strings, originally the second movement of Barber’s String Quartet, was composed in 1936 when the composer, living in Austria, encountered a passage from Virgil’s Georgics:

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 might swirls
Of sunken sand and living things and water.

Born in a continent on the brink of apocalypse, the Adagio has gone on to establish a firm foothold in the American consciousness as the musical embodiment of communal grief. It was featured at the funerals of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and Grace Kelly. Three days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Jackie arranged for the National Symphony Orchestra to perform it to an empty hall in his honor; the recording was released to radio and television stations, who adopted it as a kind of unofficial anthem of mourning during subsequent weeks. Oliver Stone used it as the theme for his landmark film Platoon. In recent years, it gained a second life among electronica/trance musicians, resulting in remixes by artists including William Orbit, Paul Oakenfold, and Tiësto.

After witnessing the premiere, critic Olin Downes tried to explain the work’s impact: “We have here honest music by a musician not striving for pretentious effect, not behaving as a writer would who, having a clear, short, popular word in hand for his purpose, got the dictionary and fished out a long one. This is the product of a musically creative nature and an earnest student who leaves nothing undone to achieve something as perfect in mass and detail as his craftsmanship permits.”

In other words, it’s simple. And beautiful.

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