Samuel Barber was something of a child prodigy. He was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania on the 9th March 1910 and was already composing by the age of 7. Having learnt piano, organ and voice he gained a place at the Curtis Institute of Music at just 14. By his late teens he was composing seriously, with works either commissioned or premièred by some of the great musicians of the age.
Barber’s Adagio for Strings originated as the second movement in his String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11, composed in 1936 while the composer was spending a summer in a Europe about to be torn apart by war. After completing his arrangement of the work for strings in 1937, he submitted the score in January 1938 to Toscanini for consideration. Toscanini himself had only recently escaped fascist persecution in his native Italy. Much to Barber’s chagrin the score was returned sometime later without comment, leaving the composer annoyed at this apparent slight. Subsequently Toscanini sent word through a friend that he was planning to perform the piece and had returned it simply because he had already memorized it. It was reported that Toscanini did not look at the music again until the day before the première. The work was premièred in a radio broadcast by Toscanini with his newly formed NBC Symphony Orchestra on November 5, 1938 in New York.
The Adagio has since become a classic of American music and has been played at numerous memorial concerts and state occasions: on the announcement of the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the funerals of JFK, Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco, and Einstein, and the memorial to the attacks of September 11th. It has also earned its place in popular culture as a film soundtrack, most notably in “Platoon”, and was one of the few works of American music regularly played in the USSR during the Cold War.
The music has something of the archaic dignity of Renaissance polyphony; a rhapsodic ascending phrase repeats, inverts, expands, and embellishes, before rising to a brittle climax, then fading into silence. The gradual build-up and slow release of tension – the archetypical arch form – gives the work an inexorable quality.
Though Radio 4 listeners voted the Adagio “the saddest piece of classical music” in 2004, it is not necessary to regard the Adagio as a lament. The work is an intense meditation by a composer who, in his 26th year, already possessed the confidence and craftsmanship to make a powerful personal statement with clarity and sincerity.