Toscanini and Barber's "Adagio for Strings"

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Gary
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Toscanini and Barber's "Adagio for Strings"

Post by Gary » Fri Dec 01, 2006 1:04 am

The Impact of Barber's 'Adagio for Strings'

All Things Considered, November 4, 2006

In November 1938, conductor Arturo Toscanini led the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the premiere performance of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." The concert was broadcast from New York to a radio audience of millions across America.

Celebrated for its fragile simplicity and emotion, the "Adagio" might have seemed an odd match for Toscanini, known for his power and drama as a conductor. But according to Mortimer Frank, author of Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years, despite the director's force and intensity, he was capable of "wonderful delicacy and tenderness and gentleness."

The year 1938 was a time of tumult. America was still recovering from the Depression and Hitler's Germany was pushing the world towards war. Toscanini himself had only recently settled in America after fleeing fascist Italy. The importance of the broadcast performance during this time is noted by Joe Horowitz, author of Understanding Toscanini: "Toscanini's concerts in New York... once he was so closely identified with the opposition to Mussolini, the opposition to Hitler -- these were the peak public performances in the history of classical music in America. I don't think any concerts before or since excited such an intense emotional response, and I don't think any concerts before or since evoked such an intense sense of moral mission."

The "Adagio for Strings" was written by American composer Samuel Barber when he was in his 20s. With a tense melodic line and taut harmonies, the composition is considered by many to be the most popular of all 20th-century orchestral works.

"You never are in any doubt about what this piece is about, says music historian Barbara Heyman. "There's a kind of sadness and poetry about it. It has a melodic gesture that reaches an arch, like a big sigh... and then exhales and fades off into nothingness."

Listen to Toscanini leading the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the "Adagio":

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/stor ... Id=6427815
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pizza
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Post by pizza » Fri Dec 01, 2006 6:32 am

As so often happens, a work with the popularity of Barber's Adagio for Strings overshadows other similar pieces that ought to be heard as well. Paul Creston's gorgeous work Gregorian Chant, also for string orchestra is rarely played and has been recorded only once as far as I know. Too bad Toscanini missed this one.

Joseph Horowitz is one of my favorite authors. I read Understanding Toscanini when it first appeared and couldn't put it down. I'm now reading Classical Music in America with equal interest but it's slower going -- more history to absorb.

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Post by diegobueno » Fri Dec 01, 2006 7:56 am

There's tons of American music that ought to be as well known as Barber's Adagio, if only it had found high-profile champions like Toscanini.

What other music by American composers did Toscanini perform besides Barber's Adagio and First Essay? And how often did he perform them?

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Post by Wallingford » Fri Dec 01, 2006 7:12 pm

Toscanini did his duty for American music--certainly not on the level of, say, a Koussevitzky, but what appealed to him, he played, even if more often than not it wasn't music that ended up in our current repertory.

Toscanini did the 3 big Gershwin numbers, and you should be able to get a CD dirt-cheap of his broadcast performances of the Rhapsody, American In Paris (infinitely superior to the released "studio" version-- with the tuba misreading his part just before the coda), and the Concerto. They are serviceable performances. And Toscanini DID do some other pieces thought to be important American music, like Roy Harris' Third Symphony.

But on the whole, he went for the "conservative" stuff, mainly by composers he was "pals" with, like NBC producer Don Gillis, Kent Kennan (best known for writing a standard textbook on orchestration) and Abram Chasins.

But Toscanini DID support new American works, and his doing so gave the lie to the whole assumption (spread like a plague by the likes of Joseph Horowitz) that he was a fuddy-duddy who didn't do contemporaries.
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That the things we never had
Never mattered we were always ok
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Gary
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Post by Gary » Sat Dec 02, 2006 3:04 am

Wallingford wrote:
But Toscanini DID support new American works, and his doing so gave the lie to the whole assumption (spread like a plague by the likes of Joseph Horowitz) that he was a fuddy-duddy who didn't do contemporaries.
In Understanding Toscanini, Horowitz acknowledged that Toscanini conducted contemporary American music; the complaint is that he didn’t conduct enough of it.

Horowitz states:
…Toscanini’s choices were mild, but they included works of enduring interest: Barber’s Adagio for Strings; Copland’s El Salon Mexico; Gershwin’s An American in Paris, Concerto in F, and Rhapsody in Blue; Griffes’s The White Peacock; Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite; Harris’s Third Symphony… p. 126


A second, more sweeping criticism of the Toscanini repertoire, not endorsed by the cultists, was that too much time was allotted to warhorses by Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner, crowding out new and/or American music. Unusually blunt versions of the latter were delivered by the composers Daniel Gregory Mason, Marc Blitzstein… Mason, in Tune In, America (1931), called Toscanini’s concerts “museums of the masterpieces of musical art in the past,” servicing “fashion-enslaved, prestige-hypnotized minds.” Blitzstein wrote in the January 1932 issue of Modern Music that “this otherwise wonderful conductor has either the most execrable taste in contemporary music, or else a wanton and cynical attitude on the subject which makes one wonder if his artistic conscience is limited to music before 1900." p. 182
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Post by CharmNewton » Sat Dec 02, 2006 2:26 pm

Gary wrote:
Wallingford wrote:
But Toscanini DID support new American works, and his doing so gave the lie to the whole assumption (spread like a plague by the likes of Joseph Horowitz) that he was a fuddy-duddy who didn't do contemporaries.
In Understanding Toscanini, Horowitz acknowledged that Toscanini conducted contemporary American music; the complaint is that he didn’t conduct enough of it.

Horowitz states:
…Toscanini’s choices were mild, but they included works of enduring interest: Barber’s Adagio for Strings; Copland’s El Salon Mexico; Gershwin’s An American in Paris, Concerto in F, and Rhapsody in Blue; Griffes’s The White Peacock; Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite; Harris’s Third Symphony… p. 126


A second, more sweeping criticism of the Toscanini repertoire, not endorsed by the cultists, was that too much time was allotted to warhorses by Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner, crowding out new and/or American music. Unusually blunt versions of the latter were delivered by the composers Daniel Gregory Mason, Marc Blitzstein… Mason, in Tune In, America (1931), called Toscanini’s concerts “museums of the masterpieces of musical art in the past,” servicing “fashion-enslaved, prestige-hypnotized minds.” Blitzstein wrote in the January 1932 issue of Modern Music that “this otherwise wonderful conductor has either the most execrable taste in contemporary music, or else a wanton and cynical attitude on the subject which makes one wonder if his artistic conscience is limited to music before 1900." p. 182
Some of this reads like criticism of Toscanini being Toscanini or that he had some duty to perform contemporary music. I do not believe any musician has an obligation to perform modern works. If they so choose to study them and perform them, fine. But it is the composer's responsibility to write music that communicates with an audience. If a composer wants to compose the music of an outcast, he/she shoulsn't expect much of an audience. If musicians are ignoring his/her works, they should take the hint.

John

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Post by pizza » Sun Dec 03, 2006 3:20 am

CharmNewton wrote:
Gary wrote:
Wallingford wrote:
But Toscanini DID support new American works, and his doing so gave the lie to the whole assumption (spread like a plague by the likes of Joseph Horowitz) that he was a fuddy-duddy who didn't do contemporaries.
In Understanding Toscanini, Horowitz acknowledged that Toscanini conducted contemporary American music; the complaint is that he didn’t conduct enough of it.

Horowitz states:
…Toscanini’s choices were mild, but they included works of enduring interest: Barber’s Adagio for Strings; Copland’s El Salon Mexico; Gershwin’s An American in Paris, Concerto in F, and Rhapsody in Blue; Griffes’s The White Peacock; Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite; Harris’s Third Symphony… p. 126


A second, more sweeping criticism of the Toscanini repertoire, not endorsed by the cultists, was that too much time was allotted to warhorses by Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner, crowding out new and/or American music. Unusually blunt versions of the latter were delivered by the composers Daniel Gregory Mason, Marc Blitzstein… Mason, in Tune In, America (1931), called Toscanini’s concerts “museums of the masterpieces of musical art in the past,” servicing “fashion-enslaved, prestige-hypnotized minds.” Blitzstein wrote in the January 1932 issue of Modern Music that “this otherwise wonderful conductor has either the most execrable taste in contemporary music, or else a wanton and cynical attitude on the subject which makes one wonder if his artistic conscience is limited to music before 1900." p. 182
Some of this reads like criticism of Toscanini being Toscanini or that he had some duty to perform contemporary music. I do not believe any musician has an obligation to perform modern works. If they so choose to study them and perform them, fine. But it is the composer's responsibility to write music that communicates with an audience. If a composer wants to compose the music of an outcast, he/she shoulsn't expect much of an audience. If musicians are ignoring his/her works, they should take the hint.

John
Yet, there are plenty of excellent modern works that are audience friendly but which are deliberately ignored by orchestral associations whose only concern is filling seats.

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Post by CharmNewton » Sun Dec 03, 2006 1:41 pm

pizza wrote:
CharmNewton wrote:Some of this reads like criticism of Toscanini being Toscanini or that he had some duty to perform contemporary music. I do not believe any musician has an obligation to perform modern works. If they so choose to study them and perform them, fine. But it is the composer's responsibility to write music that communicates with an audience. If a composer wants to compose the music of an outcast, he/she shoulsn't expect much of an audience. If musicians are ignoring his/her works, they should take the hint.

John
Yet, there are plenty of excellent modern works that are audience friendly but which are deliberately ignored by orchestral associations whose only concern is filling seats.
This is probably true for major organizations like the CSO where the average salary of musicians is around $125,000 annually and Music Directors earn in the millions. In those cases tickets have to be sold and donors good reasons to contribute. But composers could do a better job of selling their music in that environment. I think composers could become more public and perhaps raise a sense of anticipation in audiences. I do not believe orchestral managers would be opposed to newer works being programmed if they had some sense that audiences wouldn't flee. It might be interesting to see (if such data is available) how CSO ticket sakes were impacted when new works like Tchaikovsky's Pathetique, Dvorak's New World Symphony or his Cello Concerto in B minor were programmed. We know that after the American premiere of Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra in Chicago, it was programmed at the end of the season by popular demand. And the orchestra toured with the other works in the 1890s, so they expected to sell tickets.

Chamber music and songs are another genre.

There's another thread on the board asking if any living composers write music that is charming. I'm sure there are and they write in more commercial venues like television, film and marketing. The last time I looked, no one was able to name any. And that is part of the problem. There are times when audiences want to be charmed, not assaulted. If music isn't written to please people, who or what is it written for? I would like to get excited by the anticipation of hearing newly composed works. Audiences want new music as well. Right now, it is the exploration of unknown 18th and 19th century music that is filling that bill.

John

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Post by diegobueno » Mon Dec 04, 2006 10:36 am

Michael Torke's Adjustable Wrench is as charming a work as you'll ever find.

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Post by Lance » Mon Dec 04, 2006 11:20 am

Locally, the Binghamton Philharmonic has programmed some outstanding contemporary works. They don't offer the etheral quality of Barber's Adagio, but they were "charming" (and short) enough not to have the audience find them off-putting. Two works were by John Adams: Chairman Dances,, and Short Ride in a Fast Machine, which can be heard on EMI 55051 with Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Barber's Adagio is probably the only type of work like that in his entire output. It seems to have been immediately accepted by audiences everywhere. It also brought him immediate fame.
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Post by paulb » Mon Dec 04, 2006 5:31 pm

Not sure which i dislike more Tocannniii's conducting OR B's adagio?
I think it falls to Tosc.

Yep I'm back in full form
Hey Lance don't delete my memnbership, what would you guys do w/o the critic?
lol
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Post by Lance » Mon Dec 04, 2006 6:51 pm

paulb wrote:Not sure which i dislike more Tocannniii's conducting OR B's adagio?
I think it falls to Tosc.

Yep I'm back in full form
Hey Lance don't delete my memnbership, what would you guys do w/o the critic?
lol
Hey, Paulb, couldn't delete YOU, of all people! You contribute a lot here ... just what we need and want on this web site and I think you are learning to be a bit more "mellow" in your pronouncements/ideas. :wink:

Funny how we don't hear as much about Toscanini as we used to. Furtwängler still seems to be the most valued of historic conductors, but everything goes in circles.
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Post by jbuck919 » Mon Dec 04, 2006 8:30 pm

Er, everyone is aware that this was originally the second movement of a string quartet, right? :? And like Verklaerte Nacht and the Siegfried Idyll it gives the listener an interesting choice (not that one has to prefer one or the other). However, in the case of the Barber, a case could be made that there is an element of producing a crowd please involved.

(BTW it has also been arranged for organ, and by Barber himself for chorus as an Agnus Dei.)

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
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Post by Wallingford » Mon Dec 04, 2006 8:59 pm

Actually, Toscanini's prime criterion for selecting ANYTHING to be performed was that it should have geniune tunefulness and melodic grace; it's on these grounds that he shouldn't be faulted.
If I could tell my mom and dad
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Never mattered we were always ok
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Post by diegobueno » Tue Dec 05, 2006 11:19 am

jbuck919 wrote:Er, everyone is aware that this was originally the second movement of a string quartet, right? :? And like Verklaerte Nacht and the Siegfried Idyll it gives the listener an interesting choice (not that one has to prefer one or the other). However, in the case of the Barber, a case could be made that there is an element of producing a crowd please involved.
Oh HORROR OF HORRORS!!! :roll:

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Post by rogch » Tue Dec 05, 2006 12:17 pm

Perhaps you will find this album interesting:
http://www.cduniverse.com/productinfo.asp?pid=1033772

I heard about this album on the radio. If i am not mistaken, it is a collection of first time recordings of various Barber works. One of the songs is sung by the composer himself!
Roger Christensen

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Post by jbuck919 » Tue Dec 05, 2006 10:15 pm

diegobueno wrote:
jbuck919 wrote:Er, everyone is aware that this was originally the second movement of a string quartet, right? :? And like Verklaerte Nacht and the Siegfried Idyll it gives the listener an interesting choice (not that one has to prefer one or the other). However, in the case of the Barber, a case could be made that there is an element of producing a crowd please involved.
Oh HORROR OF HORRORS!!! :roll:
The only reason I didn't flat out say that I don't care for the work and find it sappily sentimental and trite is that I didn't want to provoke a sarcastic response from you, Mark.

Barber wrote a great violin concerto. Everybody wrote a great violin concerto.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Post by CharmNewton » Tue Dec 05, 2006 10:23 pm

jbuck919 wrote: sappily sentimental
I've seen this term used often to describe music, but I do not know what it means. Would you care to clarify? How is a work sappily sentimental?

John

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Post by jbuck919 » Tue Dec 05, 2006 10:45 pm

CharmNewton wrote:
jbuck919 wrote: sappily sentimental
I've seen this term used often to describe music, but I do not know what it means. Would you care to clarify? How is a work sappily sentimental?

John
It appears to aspire to more than it is, which is a glorified tear jerker. Think "It's a Wonderful Life," the Frank Capra movie that is supposed to be a great film triumph. I'm not going to dispute anyone who simply disagrees with me, but:

I took a deep breath before I entered my dissenting vote, but everybody else here was talking about this thing as though it were some kind of masterpiece, dignified, nay gloriffied, by Toscanini to boot. Toscanini's repertoire also contained a number of pieces that are completely forgotten today. Someone had to speak up.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Post by anasazi » Wed Dec 06, 2006 1:21 am

Sadly, there appear to be only two active recordings of the Barber quartet on which this adagio was based. It just seems to me to be a very well composed bit for 4 instruments. That thought is even more evidenced by a piano transcription I have. Like reading a miniature score, one can play through and literally hear the entrances of the first, second, viola and cello as they first appear and then combine with the other lines. I think it just a superb example of linear writing. And very concise and clear. The version for string orchestra doesn't add any more bars to the score, just more instruments.

I'm a little young to have heard Toscannini's version of the orchestral arrangement, but of course heard countless others. Many of these do indeed seem a bit over-cooked. But then the same might be said of the scads of recordings of Air on the G-string or Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring, yet both of those works (by Bach) were not originally made to be that way.

One of the things that has associated Barber's Adagio for Strings and the term 'sentimental' is the over-indulgent use of it in films in the past 30 or so years. Often times the film's score composers being forced to cob this or that bit from the Adagio (but not sound too obvious). Other times the films producer or director simply tracks the score from their own personal record collection, associating Barber's work with all kinds of goings-on. I suppose that is a kind of flattery none-the-less.

Well, besides the original version for string quartet, and the most famous one for string orchestra, there are the transcription for piano that I have mentioned and yet another. Barber also set his piece for orchestra and chorus, to the text of the Angus Dei.
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Post by diegobueno » Wed Dec 06, 2006 10:11 am

jbuck919 wrote: The only reason I didn't flat out say that I don't care for the work and find it sappily sentimental and trite is that I didn't want to provoke a sarcastic response from you, Mark.
Any time you make one of your stupid comments you can be sure of getting a sarcastic response from me.

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Post by jbuck919 » Wed Dec 06, 2006 10:12 pm

diegobueno wrote:
jbuck919 wrote: The only reason I didn't flat out say that I don't care for the work and find it sappily sentimental and trite is that I didn't want to provoke a sarcastic response from you, Mark.
Any time you make one of your stupid comments you can be sure of getting a sarcastic response from me.
Digital TV (DTV) which I have, it being the case that if you don't have satellite TV you don't have TV, used to have three music channels, all excellent, astoundingly so, in fact. Better than XM, far better than classical radio. They just played one great work after the other and gave us the info, including which CD, at the bottom of the screen. Then they went to XM, and now they've got their own system with only one classic
channel. It is some NPR station because I hear Martin Goldsmith's voice.

Tonight was a New York Philharmonic thing that was obviously some patriotic occasion (I was not paying attention to the details of the announcement). You would have loved it, Mark. Every possible cliche of American music: Gershwin, Bernstein, Copland, yes they were all there in their honored glory, known only to God. And yes, they played the Barber Adagio. Scrape me off the floor.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Post by diegobueno » Thu Dec 07, 2006 12:31 am

jbuck919 wrote:Tonight was a New York Philharmonic thing that was obviously some patriotic occasion (I was not paying attention to the details of the announcement). You would have loved it, Mark. Every possible cliche of American music: Gershwin, Bernstein, Copland, yes they were all there in their honored glory, known only to God. And yes, they played the Barber Adagio. Scrape me off the floor.
Often when I read your posts I am reminded of something that needs to be scraped off the floor.

It seems that Classical music must be the only enterprise in the world where success is counted against you.

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