Played during funerals, memorials and climactic death scenes in Hollywood blockbusters such as “The Elephant Man” and “Platoon,” Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” has become America’s unofficial anthem for mourning.
Yet, that iconic masterpiece, particularly in its 1938 string orchestra version, likely wasn’t intended as such. Completed in 1936 in St. Wolfgang, Austria, the “Adagio for Strings” began life as the “Molto adagio” slow, middle movement in Barber’s three-movement “String Quartet” op. 11.
The inspiration for that slow movement didn’t spring from death, but from a passage Barber had read in Virgil’s “Georgics,” “…when a wave begins to whiten in mid-sea, from the farther deep it arches its curve, and, rolling shoreward, roars thundering along the reefs, and, huge as a very mountain, falls prone, while from below the water boils up in eddies, and tosses black sand aloft.”
Who woulda thunk it?
And don’t think for a minute that Barber wasn’t aware he’d created something special.
“I have just finished the slow movement of my quartet today — it is a knockout! Now for a Finale,” wrote Barber to Orlando Cole, cellist of the Curtis String Quartet who were to have premiered the quartet had it been completed in time for their concert tour.
On Sunday, Jan. 15 at 2 p.m., you can hear Barber’s “String Quartet” op. 11 performed by the knockout Ying Quartet, quartet-in-residence at Rochester’s Eastman School of Music since 1997, under the aegis of Chamber Music Hamilton in the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s Tanenbaum Pavilion, 123 King St. W.
“The Barber quartet is one we keep coming back to because, especially with the ‘Adagio’ middle movement, it’s one of the most played American string quartets of the (twentieth) century,” said Phillip Ying, violist for the quartet which includes his siblings, David and Janet, on cello and second violin respectively, and since 2015, Robin Scott on first violin.
The Barber is also special to the Yings on another level.
“It has some personal meaning for us,” continued Ying. “We were able to work with Orlando Cole when we were a younger quartet. He knew Samuel Barber. To be one step away from that is meaningful. He also encouraged us to make sure that we looked at the original finale.”
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