Samuel Barber, 1910-1981
String Quartet, Op. 11, 1936
Samuel Barber is regarded as one of the great American composers of the 20th century, the first century that produced truly great American classical music. Many of his works across all genres remain solidly in the repertoire. Barber’s musical vocabulary is tonal, lyrical, accessible and distinctively his own. With a gift and a propensity for vocal music that constitutes a good two-thirds of his output, Barber’s music sings, beguiling with its very human voice. This remains true of his eclectic and celebrated chamber works such as the cello sonata, the woodwind quintet “Summer Music”, and the chamber song “Dover Beach” for baritone and string quartet. (Barber himself was an accomplished baritone singer). Barber published two string quartets, an early serenade transcribed for orchestra and the astonishing Op. 11, the later from 1936 when Barber was a mere 26 years old. The centerpiece of the quartet is the famous monolithic and transcendent “Adagio” which has similarly been transcribed as an independent piece for string orchestra and, most revealing, as an a cappella choral mass. Even in the realm of pure instrumental music, Barber keenly evokes the human voice and our everlasting propensity for song.
Barber fiddled with the finale for a number of years. After some amount of frustration, he quickly composed the original third movement for the premier, a rondo in a moderate tempo. Unhappy, he tinkered with movement until he ultimately scrapped it. The revised conclusion became a reprise of the beginning: Barber extracted a portion of the first movement’s conclusion for the new finale and modified the first movement accordingly. The revised quartet therefore takes on a unique composite form. Rather than a three movement work, it is often regarded as a two movement work with the massive adagio rising out of the center of the single, interrupted “outer” movement, a ternary form symmetrically balanced with matching endpapers.
The “Adagio for Strings” has become practically a sacred treasure of American if not international music. Its extraordinary and seemingly universal blend of sorrow, hope and beauty casts such a strong spell that it has been repeatedly called upon to commemorate the most devastating tragedies as the only music worthy of expressing the inexpressible, both the anguish and the hope, the solemnity and the ardent expression, a nearly overwhelming yearning unfulfilled, but acknowledged by some cosmic, spiritual compassion. It is catharsis and redemption delivered in naught but wordless music, simply the sounds of sublime beauty.
It would take a serious poet to properly map the technical aspects of the music to corresponding emotional and psychological experiences. Yet a few observations cast at least a meager light on the mystery. The music is built from long lines set amidst luscious but “chaste” harmonies, pedal points and the community of other likeminded contrapuntal souls. Despite its seemingly melancholy cast, the harmonies frequently radiate with the warm brightness of extended major chords, the “kindness” of the sub-dominant and a sort of magical resolution through sudden modulation. In a way, this long stretch of music rests on a relatively few number of complete cadences spaced apart with great sensitivity and drama. The music line generally moves in a very slow, stepwise fashion, out of time like ancient Gregorian chant. The dominant motion in the line and across episodes is upward, slowly, steadily, unflagging reaching ever higher in three or four major gestures in ever greater lengths until a nearly heavenly peak is gained, the strained and nearly unbearable gesture of unfulfilled longing. Exhausted, shattered and finished, the supplication vanishes into one of the greatest movements of silence in all musical history. The eternal silence is very gently stirred by the opening gesture again, low, soft, calm and soothing. If the yearning is left unfulfilled, it has been fully registered, heard and compassionately acknowledged.
The “other” movement, generally eclipsed by this inexplicable miracle of divinity is engaging and worthy if not nearly so transcendent. It is the polar opposite of its companion. Where the adagio is monothematic, built from impossibly long lines lovingly interwoven into a nearly Renaissance-like meditation of gradual change, continuity and culmination, the first (and last) movement is packed with spiky diversity, a confrontation of colorful contrasts, muscular energy and a distinctively 20th century character. Unlike the ancient, wise grace that seems to run through the adagio, the verve and range of the Molto allegro e appassionato more accurately matches a young, gifted composer exercising his scintillating chops. This is well-crafted music with a “modern” pulse and urgency. But true to Barber’s lifelong commitment to melody, classical form and the advanced tonality of the late Romantic European idiom, the music evinces great lyricism, palpable shape and cogent expression surprising for its time between the two world wars. As time has passed, Barber’s comparative conservatism has found a fresh audience with the contemporary taste for neo-romanticism.