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