Barber centenary

March 20 2010

The first performance of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, in a 10 pm radio broadcast by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Toscanini, in front of an audience, on November 5 1938 in New York. (Where in New York? Live? 10 pm seems late for New Yorkers.)

The music was an arrangement of the slow movement of his first string quartet (1936). It was played at the funeral of Einstein at Princeton (quartet or transcription?). In 1967 he would transcribe it again for eight-part unaccompanied choir as a setting of the Agnus Dei. It has been used in films, such as Platoon. Adagios-with-violence are a cinematic cliché, but Barber’s music is irreducible.

Toscanini takes the piece faster than Bernstein, as you’d expect. Is there a barely perceptible and wholly inappropriate Italianate tremolo in the reprise of the theme after the climax, from 5:36? It is probably the recording.

Barbara Heyman tells us that Toscanini made slight changes to Barber’s scoring, as he did with the other Barber work he premiered in the same concert, the first Essay for Orchestra.

Barber, a 28 year-old American, was too grateful for the double accolade from Toscanini, and for the quality of the performances, to be concerned. William Primrose was the first violist, Alfred Wallenstein the principal cellist.

Roger Scruton in Beauty (OUP, 2009), on

“The long step-wise melody in B-flat minor which is less a melody than a melody remembered; the tensions resolved on half-cadences, as though pausing for breath but refusing to come to a halt, so that there is a continuous cycle of tension and relaxation; the constant fall of the melodic line that burdens every attempt to rise, until the sudden climb through a pair of diminished fifths, like the last efforts of someone struggling to free himself so as to reach the rock which is his goal, only to find that this rock, the high B flat which was the tonic for which the melody had longed for 12 bars, is without foundation, being now the dominant of E-flat minor, lying above an unstable dissonance […].”

Perhaps, fine as Toscanini is, Bernstein gives the music more grandeur. There are versions by him on YouTube with the New York Philharmonic (with poor sound) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the latter a late Deutsche Grammophon recording from a live performance.

November 5 1938 was a few days before Kristallnacht. At the end of the Toscanini, you can hear a man talking on a neighbouring radio channel, whose signal drifts in as the Barber fades away.

Barber, March 9 1910-January 23 1981, c 1938

2 Responses to “Barber centenary”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Deleted sentence: “There are hints of an expressive rubato which the music doesn’t need, but only hints.” Not even that.

    Virgil Thomson, quoted by Heyman: “I think it’s a love scene … a detailed love scene … a smooth successful love scene. Not a dramatic one, but a very satisfactory one.”

    The Barbirolli years at the NYPO were 1936-41.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    William Schuman was born on August 4 of the same year, 1910. He has made an appearance here already.

    A coming-out note Barber wrote at the age of nine has been preserved.

    “NOTICE to Mother and nobody else

    Dear Mother: I have written this to tell you my worrying secret. Now don’t cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now without any nonsense. To begin with I was not meant to be an athlet (sic). I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure. I’ll ask you one more thing. – Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football. – Please – Sometimes I’ve been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very),

    Sam Barber II

    Quoted in Heyman.

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