Adagio for Strings
Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, March 9, 1910; died in New York City, January 23, 1981
Like most American music lovers in the 1930s, Samuel Barber was mesmerized by Arturo Toscanini and his fiery interpretations of the great symphonic and operatic literature. In 1933, the 23-year-old composer used his status as nephew of the celebrated operatic contralto Louise Homer, one of Toscanini's favorite singers, to pay a visit to the maestro at his summer retreat on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy. To his delight, they struck up an immediate friendship, and the old conductor expressed interest in performing a work by Barber despite the fact that he generally avoided contemporary music like the plague. But Barber was by no means a typical contemporary composer. Although only recently graduated from Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, he was a precocious artist who had already found his own creative voice—lyrical, deeply expressive and rooted in the harmonic language of the late 19th century—a voice even the conservative Toscanini could love.
It took Barber several years to produce two works he thought worthy of Toscanini's attention. His uncle, the composer Sidney Homer, gave him excellent advice: "The thing now is to write something for Toscanini that expresses the depth and sincerity of your nature. … You know as well as I do that the Maestro loves sincere straight-forward stuff, with genuine feeling in it and no artificial pretense and padding." Finally, early in 1938, Barber sent the maestro his newly completed First Essay for Orchestra and the Adagio for string orchestra he had fashioned from the slow movement of his String Quartet of 1936.
Toscanini's selection of the Essay and the Adagio for his evening radio broadcast with the NBC Symphony on November 5, 1938 was the ultimate promotional coup for Barber’s career. As older audience members may recall, the Toscanini radio concerts had a passionate nationwide following that PBS's "Live from Lincoln Center" broadcasts cannot begin to match today. By the next morning, Samuel Barber was a household name for American music lovers.
Barber had truly embodied his uncle's advice, especially in the Adagio, which remains his most beloved and frequently performed composition. Using the simplest of musical means, it is a work whose sincerity and depth of feeling shoot directly to the heart. Called our "national funeral music," it has eloquently expressed Americans' grief at the ceremonies for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945 and John F. Kennedy in 1963. In 1986, it moved a new generation in the Academy Award-winning film Platoon, mourning the young lives snuffed out by the Vietnam War.
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
Born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, March 25, 1881; died in New York City, September 26, 1945
Béla Bartók has a reputation as one of the most formidably cerebral composers of the 20th century, yet paradoxically he was also one of the most passionately expressive. His music often seems to exude a pitiless severity; for example, his Miraculous Mandarin is a cruelly lacerating score while several of his string quartets demonstrate a fearless modernity ruled by chilling logic. Yet tempering this severe rationality was his passion for Eastern European folk music (which inspired years of research in the Hungarian and Romanian countryside) and a love of sound colors that produced extraordinary, often eerily beautiful new instrumental techniques and combinations.
These disparate characteristics came together in 1936 to produce the magical Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of 1936, ranked by many as his greatest orchestral score. Bartók scholar Halsey Stevens describes it as “one of the most intensively organized of all his compositions; the subject of its opening fugue generates the entire work, and yet it is at the same time so spontaneous and so communicative that only the rare listener is likely to be aware of its complexities.”
The founder of the Basle Chamber Orchestra, Paul Sacher had approached Bartók in June 1936 for a new work to celebrate the Orchestra’s tenth anniversary. Because the Orchestra had a modest budget, he asked the composer to write for a reduced ensemble, with the wind players being replaced by “a piano or cembalo … or some kind of percussion instrument.” Bartók embraced this restriction with enthusiasm, for it would give him another opportunity to explore new sonic combinations. He decided on an ensemble with two different string groups in five parts, ranged on either side of a percussion ensemble featuring celesta, piano (sometimes played four-hands), harp, xylophone and a variety of drums. The placement of the instruments was specified in the score, with the two string ensembles often treated in antiphonal fashion. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was composed rapidly in just over two months that summer and premiered by Sacher and the Basle Chamber Orchestra the following January before an enthusiastic audience, which demanded an encore of its rollicking final movement.
As Stevens explained, nearly all the material in this 30-minute work springs from the subject theme of the mysterious fugue that constitutes its first movement: a culmination of Bartók’s deep interest in counterpoint. It is a strange, very compressed theme moving by twisting chromatic (half) steps within a very narrow range. Presented in four little fragments, it is also rhythmically eccentric: Bartók has to keep changing the meter to notate its odd quirks and stresses.
This fugue emerges very quietly from muted violas, then spreads through the strings farther and farther away from the home tonality of A. We know when it reaches its most distant point — the key of E-flat — because a whomp on the bass drum marks the arrival and the movement’s climax. Then, the journey is retraced back to A, with the fugue subject now upside-down. The beautiful shimmer of celesta guides the final steps home.
All of this sounds very cerebral and abstract, but in fact, this musical journey is totally absorbing. And astonishingly, Bartók manages in the three following movements to derive such an extraordinary range of musical transformations and moods from the cramped little fugal theme. Movement two is a brilliant dance driven by kinetic rhythms; its vivacious opening theme is an expansion of the fugue subject. The percussion section now comes to the fore, while the two string sections play antiphonal games with each other. The middle development section contains the most electrifying music, with pizzicato strings essentially joining the percussion section of piano, celesta, harp and xylophone.
The high, chilly clicks of the xylophone announce the Adagio third movement: perhaps the most extraordinary of Bartók’s famous “night music” scenes. In the words of his son Béla Jr.: “My father captured the frogs’ concert and other evocative sounds in the quiet of the [Hungarian] plain.” Here, the composer creates an extraordinary sound world, unfolding an atmosphere of wonder, mystery and a touch of fear. The rhapsodic combination of celesta, harp and piano glissandos over tremolo strings is uncannily beautiful. In between each section of this arch-form movement, which rises to a climax in the middle, Bartók inserts fragments of his fugue subject.
Timpani and strumming strings launch the Allegro molto finale: an exuberant parade of folk-dance themes, starting with a dashing melody in syncopated Bulgarian rhythm. At midpoint, the dancing subsides, and the tempo slows for a grand statement by the strings of a more expansive and confident version of the fugue subject. But the Bulgarian-style dance soon returns, and the work closes in uninhibited joy. No wonder the first audience wanted an encore!
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, op. 73, “Emperor”
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born in Bonn, Germany, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, Austria, March 26, 1827
There is a certain irony in the subtitle of "Emperor" that was later given to Beethoven's Fifth and final Piano Concerto, but never used by the composer himself. By the spring of 1809 when Beethoven was creating his "Emperor" Concerto, the last person he would have wanted to honor was the emperor of the day, Napoleon Bonaparte. Years earlier, he had angrily obliterated a dedication to the French leader he'd once admired from the title page of his Third Symphony, the "Eroica," after he learned that Napoleon had just crowned himself Emperor. "Now he will become a tyrant like all the others," the composer raged.
Now in May 1809, Napoleon's armies were actually besieging the city of Vienna. Beethoven’s home was in the line of fire of the French cannons, and he was forced to flee to his brother’s house, where he holed up in the cellar with a pillow pressed to his still sensitive ears. But his work on his new Concerto did not cease.
And yet in many ways “Emperor,” taken in a more generic sense, is an appropriate title for this concerto. It is a work of imperial size and scope—particularly in its huge first movement—and it reflects its war-writhen era in its virile, martial tone. Its key—E-flat major—was one of Beethoven’s favorites and one he associated with heroic thoughts; it is also the key of the “Eroica." Sadly, Beethoven was never able to display his own powers as a pianist with this work. Although he had introduced all his other keyboard concertos to the public, his deafness was too far advanced for him to risk playing the 1810 premiere in Leipzig.
The length and complexity of the sonata-form first movement demonstrate Beethoven's new symphonic conception of the concerto. The opening is boldly innovative. First we hear the pianist sweeping over the keyboard in grand, toccata-like arpeggios and scales, punctuated by loud chords from the orchestra. Then the soloist allows the orchestra to present its long exposition of themes. The first theme, with its distinctive turn ornament, is introduced immediately. The second, a quirky little march, appears first in halting minor-mode form in the strings, then is immediately smoothed out and shifted to the major by the horns. Over the course of the movement, Beethoven will transform both these themes in a wondrous kaleidoscope of keys, moods and figurations.
After its long absence, the piano begins its version of the exposition with a rising chromatic scale ending with a long, high trill. Throughout, Beethoven uses this scale as an elegant call-to-attention: whenever we hear it, we are being given notice that a new section of the movement is beginning. It will mark the opening of the development section and later the closing coda after the recapitulation.
Just before that coda comes the usual moment for the soloist's big cadenza. But here Beethoven has quashed the soloist's customary right to improvise his or her own exhibition of virtuosity. Fearing the jarring improvisations other soloists might make, the composer wrote in Italian in the score: "Non si fa una Cadenza, ma s'attaca subito il seguente" ("Don't play a cadenza, but attack the following immediately"). He then carefully wrote out a brief series of variants on both his principal themes, the piano soon joined by the horns to blend the cadenza smoothly into the movement's flow.
A complete contrast to the extroverted first movement, movement two is a sublime, very inward elegy in B major, a remote key from the home tonality of E-flat. Two themes receive a quasi-variations treatment. The first and most important is the strings' grave, almost religious theme heard at the opening. The second theme is the downward cascading music with which the piano enters.
At the close of the movement, the pianist experiments hesitantly with a new melodic/rhythmic idea. Suddenly, the spark is struck, and the theme explodes into the exuberant rondo finale. Beethoven stresses the weak beats of the dancing 6/8-meter, giving his theme an eccentric, hobbling gait. An important element is the crisp dotted rhythm first heard in the horns; this martial, drum-like motive returns us to the wartime world of the Concerto’s birth. Near the end, Beethoven gives this to the timpani, in eerie duet with the soloist, before the concerto’s triumphant finish.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2010
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