Work: Adagio for Strings, Op. 11
About This Work
The Adagio, now almost invariably played in its orchestral version, comes from the slow movement of Barber's String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11 (1936), and must be counted among the most familiar pieces of American concert music; it has become a popular
classic and even exists in a choral version. The music has something of the archaic dignity of Renaissance polyphony; a rhapsodic ascending phrase is repeated, inverted, expanded and embellished before rising to a brittle climax, then fading into silence. The gradual build-up and slow release of tension -- the archetypical "arch" form -- gives the work an inexorable quality. In the quartet it serves the work well, giving point and focus to its neighboring movements, though somewhat upstaging them by its eloquence.
The orchestral version, first performed in 1938 by the NBC Symphony Orchestra and Arturo Toscanini (on the same occasion as Barber's First Essay for Orchestra), conveys both tranquillity and grief, and has frequently been chosen to mark occasions of public mourning; it was, for instance, played at the funerals of F.D.R., J.F.K. and Princess Grace, and has appeared in the scores to a number of poignant films, including The Elephant Man and Platoon. Since then it has frequently been heard all over the world, and was one of the few American works to be played regularly in the Soviet Union during the cold war. It is, however, not necessary to regard the Adagio as a lament. The work is an intense meditation by a composer who, in his 26th year, already possessed the confidence and craftsmanship to make a powerful personal statement with clarity and sincerity. Its poignancy, simplicity, and dignity have been praised by such composers as Ned Rorem, Roy Harris, William Schuman and Aaron Copland.
-- Roy Brewer
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