Adagio For Strings

This section is about the composition by Samuel Barber. Adagio for Strings is a work by Samuel Barber, arguably his best known, arranged for string orchestra from the second movement adagio For Strings his String Quartet, Op. Barber finished the arrangement in 1936, the same year that he wrote the quartet. It was performed for the first time on November 5, 1938, by Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in a radio broadcast from NBC Studio 8H.

Its reception was generally positive, with Alexander J. Morin writing that Adagio for Strings is “full of pathos and cathartic passion” and that it “rarely leaves a dry eye. Barber’s Adagio for Strings began as the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11, composed in 1936 while he was spending a summer in Europe with his partner Gian Carlo Menotti, an Italian composer who was a fellow student at the Curtis Institute of Music. In January 1938, Barber sent an orchestrated version of the Adagio for Strings to Arturo Toscanini. The conductor returned the score without comment, which annoyed Barber. Toscanini then sent word through Menotti that he was planning to perform the piece and had returned it simply because he had already memorized it.

Toscanini conducted Adagio for Strings in South America and Europe, the first performances of the work on both continents. 19, 1942, the piece had public performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy at Carnegie Hall. The lower strings come in two beats after the violins, which, as Johanna Keller from The New York Times put it, creates “an uneasy, shifting suspension as the melody begins a stepwise motion, like the hesitant climbing of stairs. The Adagio is an example of arch form and builds on a melody that first ascends and then descends in stepwise fashion. After four climactic chords and a long pause, the piece presents the opening theme again and fades away on an unresolved dominant chord. Music critic Olin Downes wrote that the piece is very simple at climaxes but reasoned that the simple chords create significance for the piece.

Downes went on to say: “That is because we have here honest music, by an honest musician, not striving for pretentious effect, not behaving as a writer would who, having a clear, short, popular word handy for his purpose, got the dictionary and fished out a long one. Morin, author of Classical Music: The Listener’s Companion, said that the piece was “full of pathos and cathartic passion” and that it “rarely leaves a dry eye. In 1938, Olin Downes noted that with the piece, Barber “achieved something as perfect in mass and detail as his craftsmanship permits. In an edition of A Conductor’s Analysis of Selected Works, John William Mueller devoted over 20 pages to Adagio for Strings. Schirmer has published several alternate arrangements for Adagio for Strings.

Strickland, while assistant organist at St Bartholomew’s Church in New York, had been impressed by Toscanini’s recording of the work and had submitted his own arrangement for organ to Schirmers. After making contact with Barber at a musical soirée in 1939, his transcription received a lukewarm response from the composer. Schirmers have had several organ arrangements submitted of my Adagio for Strings and many inquiries as to whether it exists for organ. I have always turned them down, as, I know little about the organ, I am sure your arrangement would be best. Have you got the one you did before, if not, would you be willing to make it anew?

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