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Adagio for Strings

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Samuel Barber
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: John Adams, conductor/Eric Owens, bass-baritone May 13 - 15, 2010
© Thomas May

Adagio for Strings
SAMUEL BARBER

While still in his twenties, Samuel Barber (1910-1981) rose quickly to the top and won international recognition. His early works already revealed a distinctive voice, one characterized by an intense lyricism that seems to come directly from the heart. His Symphony No. 1 became the first piece by an American to be played at the ultra-prestigious Salzburg Festival in 1937.

It was on that occasion that conductor Arturo Toscanini initially encountered Barber's music. Deeply impressed, Toscanini requested some new pieces for his fledgling radio orchestra, the NBC Symphony, to perform. He suggested that Barber might refashion the slow movement of his First String Quartet of 1936 (where it appears as the middle of three movements) into a stand-alone piece for full string orchestra. Its premiere over the radio waves in November 1938 in this new version solidified the composer's fame.

For good reason, the Adagio for Strings has remained a firm fixture of the American classical canon since it was first heard. This is music of gripping immediacy that resists being diluted despite overuse but conveys an authentic tone of pathos. What's more, Barber accomplishes this with simple, familiar elements. The entire piece develops from the stepwise melodic motif stated at the opening. Barber deploys a well-calculated but compelling overall musical architecture to achieve a powerful sense of emotional catharsis.

The tempo indication is actually molto adagio espressivo cantando, i.e., "very slowly and with a singing expressiveness." The music progressively builds in intensity through accretion of volume and textural density as it ascends through the strings' registers. Barber perfectly paces the wrenching climax before the piece breaks off into a numbed, throbbing silence. A gentle reprise then recasts the opening in a new guise of stoic resignation.