Adagio for Strings

Samuel Barber

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (Leonard Slatkin, cond.)

album cover

Symphonic Music for Meditation

The brooding surges and keening tones of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings suggest the work of a troubled soul in the late autumn of life, reflecting on things past. In fact, Barber wrote the piece at the ripe old age of twenty-six, initially conceiving it as the slow movement of his 1936 String Quartet. He provided a full symphonic orchestration two years later, and virtually rocketed to fame soon after, when the piece was championed by celebrated conductor Arturo Toscanini. It became one of the few works by an American composer performed regularly by Russian orchestras during the cold war.

And it wasn't long before the Adagio reached those who didn't pay much attention to classical music: Its stately pace suited it to ceremonies of public mourning (it was played during funeral observances for Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy) and any number of poignant films, including The Elephant Man and the Vietnam drama Platoon.

Perhaps because of its somber air and long questioning tones, the Adagio is often included on those classical anthologies devoted to "relaxing" music. It's that and more, a singularly moving eight-minute journey suited to any introspective occasion. Alternately stormy and tranquil, with brooding counterlines that rise from the cellos and basses answered by hovering sustained notes from the violins, the piece creates its own atmosphere. Some recorded versions lean toward an almost florid excess, utilizing glacially slow tempos to manufacture drama. This 1981 version by the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, is haunting precisely because it's so spare. Slatkin fixates on the solemnity of Barber's score, and renders it cleanly, luring listeners into a transfixing zone of reflection that Barber built out of chords that hang, perpetually unresolved, in the air.

Genre: Classical
Released: 1981, Telarc
Another Interpretation: New York Philharmonic (Leonard Bernstein, cond.)
Collector's Note: This themed collection of nocturnal pieces includes Ralph Vaughan Williams's magnificent (and underappreciated) "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," a string-orchestra recontextualization of a Tallis religious work from the 16th century.
Catalog Choice: Piano Concerto No. 1, John Browning, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (Leonard Slatkin, cond.)
Next Stop: Maurice Ravel: Pavane for a Dead Princess, Berlin Philharmonic (Herbert von Karajan, cond.)
Book Pages: 44–45

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Comments:

#1 from Joyce McGlaun, Texas - 11/14/2008 10:58

I bought this recording at the Texas Tech Bookstore when I was a student in the late 1960’s.  I played it so much that the grooves in the record are nearly destroyed. Over the past 38 years in my career as a violinist, I have performed each of the pieces on the recording-some of them several times.  But in my mind, I’m part of the St. Louis Symphony, playing as beautifully as in that original recording.

#2 from Raman, Melbourne, Australia - 03/27/2009 2:45

Hi,

Adagiop for strings is and has always been my favourite song. I am trying to track down the actual score or notes for adagio for strings and are finding it very difficult to locate. Any help would be much appreciated. Thanks in advance.

#3 from cale, Washington, DC - 08/07/2009 2:36

The album linked to on Amazon is not the 1981 Telarc pressing listed in the article.  That one seems to be out of print, but looks to be reissued as this:

http://www.amazon.com/Vaughan-Williams-Fantasia-Strings-Grainger/dp/B000003CSO/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1249601395&sr=8-6

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