Adagio for Strings, op. 11

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           If any composer may truly be considered our national composer, Samuel Barber should surely be in the running.  Notwithstanding the adulation of Aaron Copland’s populist music from the 1930s and 40s, most of the latter composer’s compositions in other musical styles are not well received by the American public--too dissonant and modern!  On the other hand, no major American composer of the twentieth century was a more ardent and eloquent champion of a lyrical, accessible, yet modern idiom, than Samuel Barber.  His musical style is founded in the romantic traditions of the nineteenth century, whose harmonic language and formal structures were his point of departure.  Unlike so many of his peers, he was not powerfully swayed by the modernism emanating from Europe after World War I, but pursued his own path.  

            Consistently lyrical throughout his career, it is telling that his songs constitute about two-thirds of his compositions in number.   His vocal works include two major operas, Vanessa (1956), and Antony and Cleopatra (1966), the latter composed for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center.  But, he also composed at least one work for almost every musical genre, and unlike most composers, he was a recognized and published composer from his student days.  At the age of twenty-one his overture to The School for Scandal was an instant success, was forthwith published, and remains in the standard repertoire. 

            Though his choral music and solo vocal music are concert mainstays, the Adagio for Strings is undoubtedly his most well known work.  It is the second movement of his String Quartet, arranged for string orchestra.  In 1936, when he was twenty-six years old, he and his life’s partner, the equally distinguished Italian composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, were living in Europe for the summer, and the quartet was written there.  The quartet has only three movements, and apparently the composer knew from the beginning that the slow middle movement was something special.  The quartet received its première in Rome in late 1936, but Barber revised the last movement the next year before its first performance in the U.S.  Even before all this, it is apparent that Barber had recognized the gold of the middle movement, and extracted the movement, arranging it for string orchestra right away in 1936.  In this full, lush guise the composer sent the full score to Toscanini in early 1938, and soon received it back with no comment.  That was a bit irksome, and Barber felt slightly offended, but soon all was put right, as the legendary conductor soon informed Barber that he had memorized the complete score, and sent it back as a courtesy.   Toscanini conducted the première of the string orchestra version in November of 1938 in a live radio broadcast (a recording was made) from Rockefeller Center, and the rest is history, so to speak.  It went on to take its place as a very special composition in the American psyche, and like the “Nimrod” variation from Elgar’s Enigma Variations in Great Britain, a performance of the Adagio for Strings is almost mandatory for moments of great national reflection and grief.

             It is a relatively simple work, like much great art, but concomitantly is also the stunning application of genius and inspiration in its creation.  A straightforward melody enters after a unison low Bb in the violins and a rich response from the low strings.  Composed of a searching three-note figure and a descending scale and return, this idea is passed around the orchestra in a dialogue of string voices.   Beneath it all, a rich bed of ever-shifting harmonies sustains.  Barber makes much of the homogeneous timbre of the string section—like great, unaccompanied vocal choruses—to “sneak” remarkable dissonance and its resolution into the texture.  And of course, it is this very commonplace of music that produces much of what has always been perceived as beauty, in this case, wrenching beauty.  Expressive upward leaps in the melodic line, resolving to ever-shifting harmonies, mostly complete the picture, as the instruments—and the tension—climb higher and higher.   An ever-changing pulse contributes to the unease, as the soaring climax is reached.  A few dramatic chords, a pause, and Barber returns to a brief restatement of the beginning.  As it ends impossibly softly, there is no traditional harmonic resolution, but concludes with a “hanging” chord, with no real sense of finality.  It could not better mirror the irresolution of existence, grief, and human lives.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2015 William E. Runyan