Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Samuel Barber, and his alma mater, the Curtis Institute, has been celebrating the late composer with a series of concerts all over the country played by a chamber group consisting of students, alumni and faculty called Curtis On Tour.
Among the pieces they are playing: the Barber String Quartet, Op. 11. The middle movement of this piece is the music we know as the Barber Adagio for Strings.
"I think if that was the only piece he ever wrote, he'd be one of the greatest composers that ever lived," said violinist and Curtis Institute professor Ida Kavafian, who is the faculty member playing on tour.
Left to right: Kavafian, violin; alumnus and faculty member Peter Wiley, cello; Hyo Bo Sim, viola; Yekwon Sunwoo, piano; Benjamin Beilman, violin. Photographer Jean Brubaker.
"I don't think I've ever gotten through it without tearing up, even in a concert," Kavafian said, "One of the most emotional times I played it was after 9-11, for the firemen who perished. There were some members of the family, and also guys that did survive, or didn't get the call to go down there, who were at the concert. That was rough."
Barber wrote the quartet for the Curtis Quartet, though it was premiered by another group. The current performances of it became all the more poignant because of the recent death of cellist Orlando Cole – "Landy" -- a founding member of the Curtis Quartet and longime cello professor at Curtis.
"Of course (Barber) was very close to Landy," Kavafian said. "Until very recently, I had this dream that this quartet would actually go and play the (Barber) quartet for him. So I was very saddened that I never had the opportunity to do that, although I know that he's coached the piece pretty recently with other groups here."
Samuel Barber, 1932, as a student at Curtis. He entered Curtis at its opening in 1924 and remained until 1934, studying piano and voice as well as composition. Photo courtesy of Curtis Institute of Music Archives.
"Being his friend, (Barber) was in communication with Landy as he was writing the quartet," Kavafian said. "When he finished the second movement, he wrote this letter, and it said, 'I just finished the slow movement of my quartet today – it is a knockout!' and he underlined "knockout." I think that was probably the understatement of the century!"
Violinist Ben Beilman, who a student of Kavafian and is playing in the Curtis tour, has played the Adagio a number of times before this, including the version for string orchestra, and has studied the Barber Violin Concerto. I asked him what he thought of the music of Barber.
"Barber obviously has this incredible ability to convey emotion. In he first and third movement of the quartet, there's almost a dark veil, occasionally. The violin concerto is a lot more expansive, more exuberant and outgoing. But emotion is the biggest thing that comes to mind; how much he decides to either go all the way – or what he decides to reserve and hold back, which adds even more tension and intensity to it."
Thank you for such a great article! Only recently did I hear the Adagio for strings for the first time (Where have I been?!). I was so wrapped up in the emotion of it! It is definitely a piece that grips you so deeply. I imagine it evokes such tangible emotions in every listener. I remember thinking that it would make an excellent soundtrack for the crucifixion of Christ! It is SO emotional. Truly beautiful music.
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March 10, 2010 at 04:20 PM ·
Oh my goodness, what an astonishing recording, what an astonishing voice Barber had! I had no idea. I'm a huge fan of his VC and I'm thrilled to learn the Adagio for Strings is part of a quartet - I'm off, right this minute, to hunt it down.
A wonderful article/blog. Thanks, Laurie!