On today’s date in 1938, two works by the American composer Samuel Barber received their very high-profile premiere performances on a live, coast-to-coast broadcast by the NBC Symphony conducted by Arturo Toscanini.
Toscanini was impressed by Barber’s First Symphony, which was performed at the 1937 Salzburg Festival, so Toscanini asked the 25-year old composer for a short orchestral piece, which Toscanini might perform with the newly-formed NBC Symphony.
Barber offered Toscanini his pick of two short pieces, and must have been surprised when Toscanini agreed to perform BOTH of them: a newly-composed “Essay for Orchestra” and Barber’s arrangement for full string orchestra of a movement from a String Quartet he had written in 1936. Retitled “Adagio for Strings,” it was destined to become Barber’s best-known work.
Barber’s “Adagio” acquired a special resonance during World War Two, as a threnody for America’s war dead. It was also performed at the funeral of wartime President Franklin D. Roosevelt. More recently, Barber’s “Adagio” has been used to great effect in several successful films, including “The Elephant Man” and “Platoon.”
In a memorial tribute to Barber, American composer Ned Rorem wrote, “If Barber [25 years old when the ‘Adagio’ was completed] later aimed higher, he never reached deeper into the heart.”
Music Played in Today's Program
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)First Essay for Orchestra, Op. 12Detroit Symphony; Neeme Järvi, cond.Chandos 9053
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)Adagio for Strings, Op. 11Berlin Philharmonic; Semyon Bychkov, cond.Philips 434 108