In 1938 Arturo Toscanini had heard Barber’s Symphony and asked for a new work. Barber provided two: the Adagio for strings and the first Essay for orchestra, and both were performed and broadcast by the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The Adagio instantly brought its composer high standing with audiences and sneering dismissal by the more learned. Reviewing another work of Barber’s, Virgil Thomson offered the backhanded compliment that ‘the only reason Barber gets away with elementary musical methods is that his heart is pure’. In its original version, however, the Adagio is the slow movement (originally marked Molto adagio) from Barber’s String Quartet Op.11, where it is framed by two fast movements. The first movement creates drama through its use of musical diversity, whereas the Adagio, with
its eternal note of sadness, its sense of constant yearning, dwells on its limited thematic material: a slowly unfolding Bachian melody is subject to gradual changes to its contour and harmony as it gathers intensity. After an impassioned climax, and moment of silence, the music returns to earth.
Program notes © Gordon Kerry 2018