Barber’s Adagio for Strings


Caroline Shaw

Entr’acte for String Orchestra

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Violin Concerto No. 3 in G

Joshua Weilerstein, conductor
Francisco Fullana, violin

Admirers of Mozart’s serenades will find much to appreciate in his five violin concerti. In the late eighteenth century, the serenade genre, rooted in the tradition of musical courtship (think of the lover, supported by his mandolin-strumming friends, singing beneath his beloved’s window), expanded to include more public celebrations: weddings, graduations, and the like. Per Mozart’s contemporary J.A.P. Schulz: “The title ‘serenade’ is also used for purely instrumental compositions, which, to honor or congratulate specific personages, are performed at dusk in front of their houses… The composer must strive to write simple, flowing melodies, set primarily to consonant rather than dissonant harmonies.”

The violin concerti, all completed in the year before Mozart’s twentieth birthday, might be heard as an extension of the serenades that mark his early years in Salzburg (Eine kleine Nachtmusik, et al.). They are untroubled works, recalling the serenades in both their compositional style and idyllic character. Equally so, the serenades, a number of which feature virtuosic solo violin writing, foreshadow the concerti. Mozart biographer Maynard Solomon surmises that the third, fourth, and fifth concerti specifically “are the highest examples of his serenade style after it has been detached from the serenade proper and reconstituted within a separate genre.”

The Third Violin Concerto, the most beloved of Mozart’s five, is a bright and gregarious work, immediately from the guileless tune that begins the opening Allegro. A winsome repartee between soloist and orchestra sustains the movement’s carefree tenor; even a darker, minor-key passage midway through the movement suggests more thoughtful introspection than emotional distress.

Mozart implements a dramatic change in color in the Adagio, dispensing with oboes and introducing flutes. Solomon describes this music as “inhabit[ing] a world of plenitude, [in which] beauty is everywhere for the taking. … [T]he beauties succeed each other with a breathtaking rapidity, their outpouring of episodic interpolations suggesting that we need not linger over any single moment of beauty, for beauty is abundant, it is to be found ‘here, too,’ and ‘there, as well.’”

Oboes return, as does the buoyancy of the first movement, for the Concerto’s rondo finale. This movement, though contrasting in character to the Adagio, is equally rich with delights. In a brief Andante episode, the soloist resembles a singing troubadour, accompanied by lute-like pizzicati in the orchestral strings and atmospheric sighs in the oboes and horns. A spirited Allegretto passage follows, pointing the Concerto towards its mirthful conclusion.

Patrick Castillo ©2016

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Samuel Barber

Adagio for Strings

A prodigious composer and pianist, Samuel Barber enrolled in the founding class at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music at the age of fourteen. He went on to win the American Academy’s prestigious Rome Prize, which bankrolled his Italian residency from 1935 to 1937. During that time, Barber composed his String Quartet (opus 11) as well as an adaptation for string orchestra of the quartet’s slow movement, a haunting Adagio that was destined to become one of the most recognizable compositions of the century.

The string-orchestra version of the Adagio made its public debut in 1938 during a radio broadcast by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The work became an instant favorite with the public, and its success launched Barber’s international career.

The first significant use of the Adagio as music for mourning came in 1945, when radio stations broadcast the work following the announcement of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. The tradition continued with performances at the funerals of John F. Kennedy, Grace Kelly, and Leonard Bernstein, among many others. More recently, the Adagio has been used to memorialize victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks, most notably in a televised performance at the BBC Proms on September 15, 2001. The score has also augmented many movies, from its wrenching role in Platoon to a sardonic cameo in Amélie. The title of a 2010 book by Thomas Larson on the Adagio sums up the place this music has come to occupy in our collective consciousness: The Saddest Music Ever Written.

The musical language of Barber’s Adagio is deceptively simple. Melodically, lines move in long strands of smooth steps; the primary melodic motive is a group of three rising notes, evoking a sense of reaching and yearning. Harmonically, the energy builds through drawn-out suspensions, creating momentary surges of tension and release over a glacially slow sequence of bass notes. It is a simple and elegant design, one that evokes as much emotion, note-for-note, as any piece of music in recorded history.

Aaron Grad ©2012

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Dmitri Shostakovich

Chamber Symphony in D Minor

After a period of relative artistic freedom during World War II — Stalin had bigger problems on his mind — the Communists launched another crackdown in 1948 on artists guilty of “formalism.” Shostakovich was the most famous Soviet composer, making him a prime target for the humiliating spectacle. He prostrated himself by writing the obligatory nationalistic oratorios and film scores, all the while continuing to write pieces he knew would simply go “in the drawer” for as long as necessary. One such work was the String Quartet No. 4, composed in 1949 and withheld until after Stalin’s death in 1953. The Beethoven Quartet premiered the work in December 1953, a few weeks after they debuted Shostakovich’s Fifth String Quartet.

The String Quartet No. 4 is one of many works in which Shostakovich incorporated elements of Jewish musical tradition. His memoirs, dictated to Solomon Volkov, explain the appeal: “Jewish folk music … is multi-faceted, it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It is almost always laughter through tears. … Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express their despair in dance music.” The same could be said of Shostakovich.

Rudolf Barshai, a Russian conductor and friend of Shostakovich, received the composer’s blessing to create this chamber orchestra arrangement of the Fourth Quartet, now known as the Chamber Symphony, Opus 83a. The first movement begins with an extended drone, building in pressure under a rising melody and serpentine counterpoint. The brief form alternately explores a contrasting lyrical section and more of the drone texture. The Andantino features a sweet, song-like tune, scored first for oboe over pulsing string accompaniment. The third movement Allegretto is a whispered scherzo; the orchestration helps to exaggerate its inherent grotesqueness, as in the militaristic flare-ups by trumpet and drums. The fourth movement, also Allegretto, begins with a bassoon solo, one of the most overtly Jewish-inspired passages in the piece. The ensemble embarks on a colorful dance with oom-pah accompaniment, but ultimately the work closes quietly, with plucked chords leaving only the faintest echo of the earlier boisterousness.

Aaron Grad ©2009

About This Program

Guided by the talents of Joshua Weilerstein and the SPCO’s own Francisco Fullana, this program explores the wide reaching emotional resonance of works for string soloists and ensembles. Barber and Shostakovich’s expressive contributions bookend World War II, with the American Barber writing from a troubled Europe in the late 1930s and Shostakovich composing under the authoritarian gaze of Stalin’s Soviet Union in the late 1940s. Brooklyn-based Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte finds contemporary energy in the 18th-century musical ideas that informed the vigorous Viennese innovation in Mozart’s third Violin Concerto.