A STRANGE COMBINATION, you might say in some dismay – one Russian, the other American! – and, for God’s sake, side by side in the same post. Yet, consider my own music evolution. I got to know the 19th century compositions of Borodin (1833-1887) well before I’d ever heard of the prize-winning 20th century Pennsylvanian composer, Barber (1910-1981).
One thing they do have in common – and that is what most likely attracted me to them – namely, the most popular and lush piece they each wrote was originally part of a larger stellar chamber work for strings.
Let’s begin with my all-time favorite, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which to this day enthralls me whenever I hear it. It began life as the slow movement of his String Quartet in B minor, but was subsequently transcribed by the composer for string orchestra. In the latter version it was fist performed by the NBC Symphony under Toscanini on November 5, 1938. [Please note that the download of the 10-minute movement takes just a minute or less depending on ones internet connection speed.]
A single theme, heard immediately in first violins, dominates the composition. Other groups of instruments refer to it, treat it canonically, then develop it into a powerful climax. At the end of the piece, the theme reverts to its former serene mood. Here it’s performed by the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein conducting.
Just a tad behind the Barber work in my measuring stick of appreciation is Borodin’s Nocturne. It too saw the light of day as the slow movement of a work for strings, this time the Russian’s Andante movement from his String Quartet No. 2 in D major (1881-1885). Its expressive twenty-four bar melody is stated by the cello against syncopated chords. Hear its original version in the quartet right here along with the score, which you may follow on this YouTube recording of Nocturne.
I may mention that I was hooked thereafter on other compositions of our two stalwarts: Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances and Petite Suite for piano come to mind; and on Barber’s side of the coin, I tackled his Sonata in E-flat minor for piano, Op. 26 (1949). It’s a work of large design in which the virile modern harmonic and rhythmic writing of the first movement (Allegro energico) is combined with the eloquent lyricism of the third; and in which a varied modern idiom is harmoniously blended with a classic structure. In sum, a well-known critic of the era, Harriet Johnson, wrote that this sonata “encompasses realism and fantasy, conflict and resolution, poetry and power.”
Afterword: It was pure coincidence that I published this post on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. Barber’s Adagio, in particular, seems to epitomize for me the tragic effect that the dreadful death and destruction wrought particularly on New York City and in a wider sense on the nation. I still recall that fateful day when an acrid odor suffused the air across the Hudson River in Englewood and elsewhere in northeastern New Jersey.
References: Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewen; Wikipedia.
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