Samuel Barber 1910-1981
Samuel Barber
Samuel Barber
Adagio for Strings

For all the hoopla over Public Radio – whose affiliates are quickly converting their classical music programming to all-news-all-the-time – gone are the days when a commercial AM radio station had its own resident symphony orchestra, much less with the world’s foremost maestro to conduct a weekly broadcast. But in 1937, NBC inaugurated its live orchestral series under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. Musically conservative in taste, Toscanini, nevertheless, was eager to include suitably lyrical works by American composers on the series. Samuel Barber submittedfor the maestro’s consideration both the First Essay for Orchestra and the Adagio for Strings, an orchestral transcription of the Adagio from his String Quartet in B minor.

Not always a paragon of tact, Toscanini sent back both scores without comment, infuriating the composer. Barber profoundly revered the conductor and had endeavored to compose something worthy of him only to receive a snub. In actuality, Toscanini, whose poor eyesight made it impossible to read a score from the podium, had kept the scores just long enough to commit them to memory and intended, as he told the composer’s friend Gian Carlo Menotti, to perform both works on the air. He premiered both on November 5, 1938.

The neo-romantic Adagio was an instant success and has remained Barber’s most popular work by far. Its emotional power lies in the imperceptible gradual buildup of tension by the repetition and elaboration of the stepwise theme in different registers and instrument combinations. Example 1 At the powerful climax there is a short pause after which the theme is restated in its original form and then winds down peacefully.
Béla Bartók 1881-1945
Béla Bartók
Béla Bartók
Piano Concerto No. 3, Sz. 119

By the end of the nineteenth century, classical music based on Hungarian folk music, had come to a dead end. In fact, the themes and rhythms that Liszt and Brahms had used were not folk music at all, but rather the popular music heard in the cafés and bars of the cities and mostly derived from Rom (Gypsy) music. The extreme nationalism that swept Hungary during the failed revolution of 1848 revived interest in the authentic folk culture and set off the search for indigenous styles in clothing, food, language, literature and music.

Born in the midst of this revival, Bartók started his musical career in a more traditional vein, his early compositions emulating Brahms, Richard Strauss and Liszt. But he was swept up in the nationalist movement and, together with his friend Zoltán Kodály, became one of the first “modern” ethnomusicologists. In 1906 they began collecting the peasant folk songs of Hungary and Romania, using that newfangled invention, the Edison wax cylinder. In later years Bartók extended his collecting to other East European and North African sources, the last one in Anatolia in 1936.

The folk music Bartók collected strongly influenced his entire musical output. He edited and published many of the folk tunes he had recorded; others he incorporated into his own compositions. In his original works, such as his concerti or string quartets, he used the modes, rhythms and style of the folk music, but there the themes were his own.

In the fall of 1940, Bartók fled his native Hungary with his family to the United States. For a couple of years he eked out a precarious living teaching piano and performing with his wife, Ditta, also a pianist. By the end of 1942, he fell ill with leukemia and his situation looked bleak indeed.

In a bitter twist of irony in 1943, his career opportunities started looking up. He received a commission from Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, for a large orchestral work. The result was the Concerto for Orchestra, a resounding popular success. Other commissions followed: the Sonata for Solo Violin for Yehudi Menuhin, the Viola Concerto for William Primrose. Bartók even had to turn down a request for a two-piano concerto. In spite of his deteriorating health he worked diligently and finished the Solo Violin Sonata in 1944. He also started on a new Piano Concerto, not on commission but as a surprise gift for his wife, with the thought that it would help her financially in case of his death.

In the early summer of 1945, Bartók’s illness was in remission and he spent the summer in Asheville, NC, feverishly working on the Concerto. But by August his condition suddenly deteriorated and he died on September 26. He left behind two unfinished manuscripts: the Viola Concerto, for which he had composed the entire solo part but only extremely sketchy orchestration; and the Third Piano Concerto, which was complete except for the orchestration of the last seventeen measures. It fell to Bartók’s friend and former student Tibor Serly – composer, conductor, violist and musicologist – to finish the manuscripts.

The light and airy tone of this concerto is a far cry from the percussive aggressiveness of the earlier two. Among its most unusual qualities for Bartók is the tonality. While so many of the composer's works develop melodies either directly drawn from, or in the style of, modal folk melodies – sometimes even employing quarter tones. Although the Concerto does, indeed incorporate ethnic motives as well.

The light, airy tone of this Concerto is a far cry from the percussive aggressiveness of the earlier two. Over orchestral murmuring, the piano opens the first movement with a gentle syncopated theme, recalling Hungarian dance rhythms and perhaps a hint of American jazz. Example 1 Towards the middle of the movement, everything pauses momentarily, and the piano introduces a new theme that combines traditional tonality with unusual ethnic intervals and rhythms. Example 2 After a recapitulation of the opening, the movement dissolves in whimsical coda, an interchange between piano and flute. Example 3

The second movement, Adagio religioso, recalls the third movement of Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor, Op.132, the composer's Heiliger Dankgesang, (hymn of thanksgiving) for his own recovery from illness. Example 4 & Example 5 Things were looking up for Bartók. He believed his health was improving; the war in Europe was over; he learned that his family there, as well as his friend and colleague Zoltán Kodály were safe; and his son was discharged after four years in the U.S. Navy. As the piano part of this movement opens, one has the impression of overhearing a chorale-like conversation with God. Example 6 A scherzo-like middle section imitates actual bird calls and other cheerful sounds of nature, Example 7 but the oboe soon takes the movement back into the prayerful mood of the opening, Example 8 which grows in intensity until just before the whispered ending.

The finale, which breaks in without pause, is cheerful and virtuosic, full of Bartók’s typical syncopation, again inspired by folk rhythms and melodies – although here superimposed over a waltz. Example 9 The piano even engages in a playful fugue with the different sections of the orchestra, an unusual feature for a concerto. Example 10 As the movement draws to a close the orchestration becomes thicker and louder, almost in competition with the pianist, who doesn’t even get a cadenza.
Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

The four most clichéd notes in classical music were once the most revolutionary. For the first time a rhythm, rather than a melody, became the main subject of a symphonic movement – and not merely as a first theme to be stated and picked up again for a while in the development and recapitulation sections. Beethoven wove the rhythm into the entire fabric of the first movement, and subsequently into the rest of the Symphony. The motive first appears as a repeated demand, subsequently expanded into a genuine melody in the first theme. It recurs as a throbbing accompaniment in bass and timpani in the second theme, all the way to the final cadence of the exposition.

Such an original symphonic structure did not come easily, especially to a composer who lacked the ever-ready melodic genius of a Mozart, Bach or Haydn, who all produced copiously on demand. A collection of the composer’s sketchbooks bears witness to the lengthy and often painful gestation of some of his greatest music. The Fifth Symphony took four years to complete, between 1804 and 1808. But Beethoven also had to eat, and during those four years he also produced the Fourth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the three String Quartets Op. 59, the Mass in C and the Violin Concerto.

Although Beethoven had already been at work on what was to become the Fifth Symphony, he composed the Fourth in fairly short order in 1806 on commission from Count Franz von Oppersdorff. The Count eventually paid the 500 florins agreed upon for the work and in 1807 commissioned another symphony with a down payment of 200 florins. Beethoven notified Oppersdorff in March 1808 that the Fifth Symphony was ready and that he should send the remaining 300 florins. But the Count sent only another installment of 150 florins, and by November Beethoven, in one of his less than ethical moves, apparently felt justified in selling the score to the publisher Gottfried Härtel. Upon finally paying in full, Oppersdorff received a copy.

The Fifth Symphony was premiered at one of those monster public concerts common in the nineteenth century; on the program were premieres of the Sixth Symphony and the Fourth Piano Concerto, the aria "Ah! Perfido, the Choral Fantasia and several movements of the Mass in C. One can only imagine the bewilderment of the audience on their first encounter in a single evening with the "Pastoral" and the Fifth.

Because the Fifth Symphony is so familiar it is difficult to think of it as innovative, but it was not only the integration of the four-note rhythmic motif into the first movement that was new. It is the fact that this little rhythm becomes the motto that unifies the entire symphony. Example 1 In the first movement, the principal theme hammers away at the rhythm in almost every measure. Then, the second theme, which should provide a significant contrast, starts off with the motto in the solo horn, only afterwards becoming somewhat more gentle and legato – although that, too begins to ramp up the emotional tension as it continues. Example 2

The second movement, marked Andante con moto, involves its own kind of innovation. It is made up of two short juxtaposed, contrasting themes, the first in dotted rhythm, Example 3 the second a slow almost military theme in the brass. Beethoven produces from the two themes a double set of variations. And it should be noted that the second theme contains within it in augmentation the germinal four-note rhythm of the first movement. Example 4

After what has been called a "ghostly" opening of the scherzo, Beethoven takes up the motto again prominently in the horns, and it is this segment of the third movement that he chooses to repeat in the finale. Example 5

Symphony No. 5 has frequently been referred to as a struggle from darkness to light, but it is a commonplace that has palpable grounding in truth. Not only does the symphony begin in C minor and end in C major, but there is also the magnificent transition between the third and fourth movements, a kind of breaking through of sunlight clouds with violins stammering over throbbing timpani towards a cadence. Example 6 The eruption through to the triumphant finale paved the way for the symphonic writing of the future, including Beethoven's own Ninth, Example 7 Mendelssohn’s Third (The “Scottish”) and Brahms’s First.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017