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SCOTT SIMON, host:

When you hear Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," it is impossible not to become moist-eyed, and think about love and loss.

(Soundbite of "Adagio for Strings)

SIMON: This stirring and haunting composition was played on the radio all over the United States during the announcement of Franklin D. Roosevelt's death, at the funeral of Princess Grace, and performed in 2001 to commemorate the victims of 9/11. The BBC called Barber's Adagio for Strings the saddest classical work ever.

(Soundbite of "Adagio for Strings)

SIMON: The Adagio is the second movement of Samuel Barber's "String Quartet," the rest of that work having receded almost behind the power of the Adagio. Samuel Barber wrote many more orchestral works and songs over the course of a very long career - he composed his first piece when he was 6, and his last in 1978.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform one of those pieces, Barber's "Second Essay for Orchestra," at Carnegie Hall in New York next month.

Joining us to talk about Samuel Barber and his life in music is, of course, our favorite maestro, Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. MARIN ALSOP (Music Director, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra): Oh, my pleasure, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: I've got to tell, I am so glad you are throwing attention on Samuel Barber because I know enough about his life to know that he was - I don't mind saying - rather inanely mocked by so-called sophisticates during his career.

Ms. ALSOP: Well, it's a great opportunity because this is the hundredth centenary of his birth, and he's a composer who, as you say, during his lifetime he really had to fight against the trends in classical composition, which were headed toward the avant-garde, dissonance, atonal music. And he was an unabashed romantic. And you know, at the end of the day, of course, his music has endured.

SIMON: Why did you choose the "Second Essay"?

Ms. ALSOP: You know, Barber wrote three pieces that he called essays, and each one of them is - very much like the literary term, it's really a composition based on an idea, and he develops it. It's really, it's a - almost like a short story unto itself.

(Soundbite of "Second Essay")

Ms. ALSOP: The "Second Essay" was written just at the outbreak of the Second World War. So it has, I think, this sense of ominous dread to it but also excitement, you know, what's going to happen, this - you know, so its very dramatic. It starts quietly with a theme, but then just builds and builds and builds to a fabulous end. And it's a wonderful opener, and I thought for the Baltimore Symphony at Carnegie Hall, what better a way to start than this.

(Soundbite of "Second Essay")

SIMON: As authentically American as Copland, I think.

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah, that's always an interesting question, isn't it? What makes an American sound? I mean, to me, this sounds quintessentially American. But Barber wasn't considered, really, a patriotic composer. And his music, it was always thought of as European. Sort of Euro...

SIMON: Because it was romantic and lush...

Ms. ALSOP: I think so, and there's also a sophistication about his music. And I think when people think about Copland, there's a primitive quality, you know, a rawness to it that somehow evokes more of an Americana response. But for me, Barbers music is completely American.

(Soundbite of "Second Symphony")

SIMON: Tell us, please, about his "Second Symphony."

Ms. ALSOP: Barber wrote his Second Symphony" - he was commissioned by the Armed Forces to write music. He wrote a march called The Commando March," which I've also recorded. And his Second Symphony," they wanted him to go around with the fighter pilots and experience flying, and write a piece about it.

Now, if you heard the "Second Symphony" without me telling you that preamble, I'm not sure you would know that it's about flying. But once you know that, it really does have this sense of space and motion and excitement to it.

(Soundbite of "Second Symphony")

Ms. ALSOP: Its very different from many of his other pieces. I mean, this is one of the things about a great composer like Barber. We know one side of him -one dimension, the Barber-Adagio dimension, and yet he wrote this music that was angular and dramatic and often quite dissonant and atonal, and it shows such a skill on his part.

(Soundbite of "Second Symphony)

SIMON: Youve been very kind enough to - I made a specific request, I think for the first time that I can recall, because as it turns out, Samuel Barber wrote one of those pieces of music that affect me most deeply.

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah.

SIMON: And thats Knoxville 1915," and this is a piece of music that is written alongside the heart-piercing words of James Agee. And I believe this is the open to Agee's novel "A Death in the Family."

Let's listen to your recording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and we should say this is Karina Gauvan singing.

(Soundbite of Knoxville 1915)

SIMON: This is the section, for those of us who know Agee, that begins: Were talking now of a summer evening in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there, so successfully disguised myself as a child.

Ms. ALSOP: The ability that Barber has to create this incredible intimacy, you feel that it's your dearest archetypal parent, you know, singing you a bedtime story, and it's so simple. You know, all simple things, I think, are the most complex to create, aren't they?

SIMON: Yeah. Help us understand, how much can the kind of criticism that he had to contend with, can that really make a gifted composer unhappy?

Ms. ALSOP: I do think that toward the end of his life, he sought refuge from his own demons. You know, I mean, we all have our demons, but he drank too much, and so he sort of spiraled downward toward the end of his life. And I think that was probably related to the enormous criticism that his last opera experienced. And also, you know, he was not fashionable, ever. He was always out of fashion, and I think that's a hard line to tow your whole life. But, you know, when I bring his pieces to Japan or to Europe - I mean, many of these pieces aren't heard often - the audiences respond so enthusiastically: Why haven't we heard this piece? And you know, you realize that this music affects people, and isn't that what we want art to do?

SIMON: Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. And next month, the BSO will perform Barbers Second Essay at Carnegie Hall.

Always a pleasure. Thanks so much.

Ms. ALSOP: My pleasure, Scott. Thank you.

(Soundbite of Knoxville 1915)

SIMON: You can hear more of Samuel Barber's greatest works - and you should - and read maestro Marin Alsop's essay about the composer, at NPRmusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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