Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings

Adagio for Strings (1936), was originally the second movement of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet in B minor (Op.11). However, at the end of the year Barber had rearranged the movement for a full string orchestra. The work was composed in a musical fruitful time for Barber, with his music becoming much more popular between the years 1936-39. Adagio for Strings is the composer’s most popular and celebrated work, with it being used both in the concert hall and in adverts, campaigns and games. Further to this, Adagio for Strings is also a popular work to be played at funerals, with notable services being Albert Einstein, Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy. The work has also been labelled as the ‘Unofficial National Anthem of Sorrow’, due to it being one of the most emotionally charged compositions to come out of the 20th Century.

The Music

The work starts very quietly, with a sustained Bb held by the violin. This progresses into a hesitant ascending crotchet movement, which offers an uneasy atmosphere. The simple ascending crotchet movement is subsequently passed around the various voices of the string orchestra, however Barber subtly manipulates each version to create an arch form. The meter varies throughout the movement, but these are only very subtle changes which change the emphasis of note placement. There are sequences that Barber uses to encapsulate certain sections, for example 4/2 time will always follow bars of 2/2 or 3/2.

Barber utilises the various timbres of the different string instruments throughout the work. The initial melodic movement is reinstated by the violas, and this time it is played a fifth down, which encourages a darker and woodier sound from the instrument.  The same technique is also applied to the cellos, who play in various ranges throughout, which adds to the subtle textures that Barber was aiming for. The expansive middle section sees all of the instruments coming together to create a very open and natural sound. Here, the cellos are playing in their high register which adds some lightness to the bottom end of the ensemble. The violins are also playing in their middle range, so there are some crossovers between these parts, and with the violas sitting in the middle of the two, this creates a very close feel between the instruments. This does grow into fruition slightly later in the music, where the violins begin to utilise their upper ranges.

The end of the developing middle section sees Barber eradicate the bass lines completely, leaving the upper strings in a much more vulnerable position. This is the heart-wrenching portion of the composition, with the violins and violas fulfilling their melodic contours which reach their peaks. Once at the peak the violins begins to sustain their note whilst also swelling the sound, which gives a feeling of staticism and almost floating. The orchestra enter again together, each part reaching higher registers until the fortissimo-forte section is played.

A silent pause occurs, before the final section begins. The first section is recapped here, with the second theme being inverted, which creates a contrapuntal sequence between the voices. The delicate piano dynamic reinstates the uncertain atmosphere that was established at the start of the work. A solemn line is played by the violas and cellos, which brings back the sought after woody undertones of the timbre, and this sets us up for the ‘final farewell’ of the work which poignantly slowly dies away.

Happy Reading!

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