1910 – 1981
Adagio for Strings — 1936
From the cradle on, the young Samuel Barber received so much music nurturing from musically devoted family members that his destiny was to become a musician. This belief was taken for granted by those who lived with him. The young boy began piano studies at age 6 and wrote his first composition a year later. A note to his mother written at age 10 proved to be prophetic: “I was meant to be a composer and will be. Do not ask me to forget this ‘thing’ and go play football, please!” At age 12 he served as a church organist, and ultimately entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. A long, intensive period of study on piano, voice, and composition followed, and so did recognition of his talents: Prix de Rome (1935), Pulitzer Fellowships (1935, 1936), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1945), a New York Music Critics award (1946), and a Pulitzer Prize (1958), among other distinctive honors that continued to recognize the composer’s work throughout his life.
In 1936 Barber composed his String Quartet, Op. 11. In response to a request from conductor Toscanini, the 27-year-old submitted a string orchestra arrangement of the Adagio, taken from the 3-movement quartet. The Adagio for Strings received its premiere in a concert by the newly formed NBC Symphony led by Toscanini; its premiere reached a far larger audience than ever possible in a usual concert setting.
This work has remained a fixture of the American classical canon since it was first heard. Barber accomplishes this gripping, pathos-dripping work with simple, familiar elements. The entire piece develops from a stepwise melodic motif stated at the beginning. The music progressively builds in intensity through an increase in volume and textural density as it ascends through the register of the strings. There is a wrenching climax before the piece breaks off into a numbed, throbbing silence, followed by a gentle reprise of the original motif.
Adagio for Strings has commemorated tragic occasions ever since its introduction to the classical repertoire. This has included the funerals of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Prince Rainier of Monaco, as well as the ceremony marking the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11/ 2001. It has appeared in several movies, including Platoon and The Elephant Man. In 1967 Barber created an eight-part choral work, Agnus Dei, from the Adagio for Strings that has become a staple of modern choral repertory.
EDVARD V. GRIEG
1843 – 1907
Holberg Suite — 1884
As the son of musical and music-loving parents, six-year-old Edvard discovered the piano, only to realize that piano studies meant boring, time-consuming practice periods. Although he avoided practicing, his instincts and natural aptitude for music prompted the 12-year-old to write a first composition that he kept for the rest of his life. At 15 this natural musician had achieved just enough technical prowess to qualify for admission to the Leipzig Conservatory of Music. As was the case with academic studies, a bored Grieg often avoided dull, pedantic routines until fellow students coaxed the obviously talented student to apply himself to his studies. At the end of the four-year conservatory period, he graduated with honors in piano studies and composition.
To earn a living as a musician, Grieg returned to his native Norway. In Oslo he supported his family as a choir and orchestral conductor, music teacher, and performer. In Norway he jumped enthusiastically into the all-European movement, which stressed nationalism in the new music of each country. In Grieg’s case, the goal was to create a “Nordic style” based on the tonal language of Norwegian peasant folk songs, dances and folklore.
The composer’s large-scale works (his piano concerto and violin/piano sonatas) date from the early years of his career. As time passed, Grieg concentrated on composing short, lyric forms of songs, dances, and piano pieces known as “miniatures.” These made ideal music that found favor with music lovers and instrumentalists, especially amateur musicians and students. For their popularity, Grieg was awarded an annual state grant from the Norwegian government. This stipend allowed him to quit teaching, performing, and conducting and settle down to life as a country composer with only occasional conducting appearances in public.
The composer built an estate, Trolhaugen, and spent his days in a simple hut that held only a piano and a writing desk. Here he wrote his music “miniatures” that blended traditional western music with Nordic cultural heritage. At this rural estate in Bergen, Norway, he remained alongside his native fjords and lush landscapes until his death in 1907 at age 64. Norway’s greatest composer was given a state funeral in Oslo and 400,000 people lined the streets from Oslo to Bergen where the composer’s ashes were entombed in the side of a mountain viewed from his music workbench.
The Holberg Suite was commissioned for the celebration of the bicentennial of the birth of the “Moliere of the North,” Norwegian writer Ludvig Baron Holberg (1684-1754). Since Holberg was a contemporary of Bach and Handel, Grieg chose to compose his tribute in the form of a French Baroque period suite. He cast six movements in the musical forms of the l8th century, and filled them with the spirit of his own time and style. A lively, optimisticPraeludium (in miniature sonata-form) is followed by a series of dances. The Sarabande, originally from the Americas, contrasts nicely with its peaceful, meditative mood. It is followed by a quiet, perky, aristocratic dance as befits a Gavotte. A calm, sublime, solemnAir with solo strings comprises the fourth movement, and a lively folk song tribute to violins, a Rigaudon, makes up the last movement of the 30 minute suite. Grieg called this work “my powdered-wig piece”; it is one of strength, gentility, playfulness, and meditation. The suite remains a most frequently performed work for string orchestras.
Concerto for Violin and Strings — 1997
Known also as Toward a Distant Light
“Most people today no longer possess beliefs, love, and ideals. The spiritual dimension has been lost. My intention is to provide food for the soul, and this is what I preach in my works.” Peteris Vasks
Until recently the Latvian people have endured an uninterrupted history of domination by foreign powers. This small country has been forced to live under the dictates of Poland, Sweden, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. In 1991 the Latvians challenged 50 years of Soviet domination and earned for themselves a free, independent country.
As a student and young composer/musician, Peteris Vasks suffered hazardous and traumatic conditions whenever he, along with other Soviet-dominated composers, sought to change or modify compositional styles beyond the traditionally accepted styles of the past. Although given opportunities to relocate out of Latvia, he chose not to.
Vasks attended Riga Music School and graduated from the Lithuanian State Conservatory in Vilnius in 1970 with instrumental concentration on double bass. He joined the Latvia State Philharmonic and other groups, but soon gave up performing in order to continue his compositional endeavors. The world-acclaimed, freelance composer also became a Conservatory professor of composition, a life he follows today.
The composer casts his 1997 Concerto for Violin and Strings in a 30 minute, uninterrupted movement with three distinct sections. Deeply rooted in the rich folk tradition of Latvia, Vasks’ haunting composition shows a cyclical journey from the timeless beauty of nature’s forces emerging from silence to the cacophony of human despair, only to fall back into silent tranquility. This is the meditative First Movement; a central, more dynamic Second Movement; and a Finale with juxtaposing, differing rhythms and tonal registers. Included are three extended, challenging and improvised cadenzas for the solo violinist.
The first sounds come out of total stillness until the solo violin flies upward to perch on a high note which it sustains over hints of harmonic shading. After brief, tentative fluttering, it then glides downward in a slow, plaintive song which unfolds in down and upward stepwise motion. As parts of the whole there are sections that evoke Latvian folk dances, hymn music, a frenzied passage of chaos, and even a waltz. Toward a Distant Light, known for its technical and emotional complexity, is becoming recognized as one of the most important violin concertos of the 20th century.