10 March 2010

Why Barber's Adagio for Strings is so magnificent

To celebrate the centenary of Samuel Barber's birth (9 March 1910), Robert Kapilow on NPR Music talked about what made Barber's Adagio for Strings so great.

Extract from NPR
Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings is one of the most solemn and evocative pieces of American music. Originally the slow movement of Barber's string quartet, the music was orchestrated for a larger group of strings, and in that version it was championed by conductor Arturo Toscanini, who conducted the world premiere in a live radio broadcast in 1938. Since then, the Adagio has often been called upon to serve in times of great emotional stress, as well as at funerals of important Americans such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Leonard Bernstein.

Commentator, pianist and composer Rob Kapilow says that the kind of catharsis the piece goes through is actually the kind of catharsis that a funeral is about.

"It starts from incredible sadness, builds to an incredible climax of intensity, and then finally reaches a kind of serene acceptance, which is completely appropriate for those occasions," he says.

From the very beginning of the piece, Kapilow says, you get the perfect mood.

"It starts off with just a single note," he says. "And it's so pure, it's as if that note somehow was there forever."

So Barber lets you sit there, with that one note on the violin, for an incredibly long time, and then the note gets drenched with the emotion of a rich chord in the strings. Finally it has to move, Kapilow says, and it starts this lovely first phrase, which seems to take forever.

Emotion, Clearly Calculated

What makes it great," Kapilow says, "is that beneath all this emotion, it is one of the most clearly calculated and strongly simple and direct constructions of any piece."

Kapilow says the melody, which sounds so emotional, is "completely mathematical."

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Leonard Slatkin also conducted the BBC Orchestra at the Albert Hall on 15 September 2001

Robert Kapilow's 'deconstruction' is the best analysis I have read/heard about this wonderful piece of music. It is certainly one of my most favourite classical pieces of the modern era.

I have the 1997 recording of mixed pieces (Amazon), which includes capella, strings, flute etc versions.

There are some versions I don't like, particularly if the tempo appears too agitato for an adagio.

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