03/09/07 - Samuel Barber

In today's excerpt - Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings Op. 11. Barber's Adagio has become widely recognized as one of the truly powerful and enduring pieces of the twentieth century. Yet, its recognition has come mostly from its use as a memorial piece: it was played over national radio when news of Franklin D. Roosevelt's death was first announced; it was played at John F. Kennedy's funeral; and more recently it was the music memorably used in the climactic murder scene in Oliver Stone's Platoon. Given this association, it is surprising to learn that the piece was written more as an expression of love, and a listener is rewarded by hearing the piece again with this context. Perhaps it is best understood as one of the twentieth century's most powerful love songs:

"Barber had met and fallen in love with his fellow-student at the Curtis Institute, the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, in the autumn of 1928 and—though you would hardly believe they were more than devoted friends from Barbara B. Heyman's otherwise thorough biography—they were to share a house as lovers for over thirty years. The summer of 1936, which Barber spent spent with Menotti in the Austrian mountain village of St. Wolfgang, was one of the most idyllic times either could remember, and it was toward the end of their stay there that Barber wrote to the cellist Orlando Cole: 'I have just finished the slow movement of my quartet today—it is a knockout!' When encouraged by Arturo Toscanini, Barber made a five-part arrangement of the String Quartet's Adagio for strings orchestra, and Toscanini duly conducted it, the Adagio entered the orchestral repertoire ... [and] won the praise of Barber's contemporaries. Copland praised its 'sense of continuity, the steadiness of the flow, the satisfaction of the arch that it creates from beginning to end', asserting that 'it comes straight from the heart', while William Schuman thought 'it works because it's so precise emotionally ... you're not aware of any technique at all.' And Virgil Thomson came closest to the reason why when he described it as 'a detailed love scene'—a fact which its subsequent memorial usage has all but obliterated."


David Nice


Elegy: Music for Strings


Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Jarvi Notes on the Music Chandos Records
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