Samuel Barber was one of the rare composers who was born into a comfortable lifestyle and had a very successful career, enjoying acclaim during his lifetime. He was exposed to music from day one, especially opera, which influenced his later work.
All composers seek commissions from high-profile musicians and orchestras, and in this area Barber was blessed. He received commissions and premieres by the likes of Vladimir Horowitz, John Browning, Leontyne Price, Francis Poulenc, and Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau.
Adagio for Strings was premiered by the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by the legendary Arturo Toscanini in 1938. It was originally written as a movement from Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11 – listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cno_AKyWZSA
It was also arranged for choir, which I found hauntingly effective: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWgjwTc3PUw
It’s wise for the conductor to introduce this work to the audience, especially to warn listeners that silence is part of the music. After some particularly anguished high notes on the strings is a dramatic and extended pause, very much a part of the piece, before reassuring notes in the deeper register move the piece along to its conclusion. Often, unsuspecting audience members will applaud during the pause, ruining the effect.
I recall my first time hearing this work was in the film “Platoon”, which I saw in the theatre with some high school friends. Being about the Vietnam war, the film uses the music as an emotional backdrop to the bloodshed depicted in the fields. Not in the original composition are the sounds of helicopters – that was part of the film score. To my surprise, I found out years later the Platoon version of Adagio for Strings was recorded by the Vancouver Symphony (which, to use a sports analogy, I consider my “home team”). This YouTube link is that very recording.
Samuel Barber was born March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and died January 23, 1981, in New York City.