The Impact of Barber's 'Adagio for Strings' Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" is considered one of the most popular of all 20th-century classical works. Its 1938 premiere by the NBC Orchestra with conductor Arturo Toscanini is a recent selection for the National Recording Registry.

The Impact of Barber's 'Adagio for Strings'

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Today, part two in our series from the National Recording Registry.

(Soundbite of National Recording Registry series intro)

ELLIOTT: In January of 1938, the composer Samuel Barber sent the conductor Arturo Toscanini a piece he'd written. It was called Adagio for Strings. Toscanini sent the score back to Barber without comment. Barber was annoyed, the story goes, and avoided the conductor. Toscanini sent word through a friend that he was planning to perform the piece. He had returned the score simply because he had already memorized it. On November 6, 1938, Arturo Toscanini, conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra, presented the debut of Adagio for Strings. The performance was broadcast on the radio. Luckily, that broadcast was recorded. And last year it was entered into the National Recording Registry, one of 50 audio recordings chosen each year for preservation, and the one we chose for today's story. Here's the cast. Joe Horowitz...

Mr. JOE HOROWITZ (Author): My seven books include Understanding Toscanini, and another, my most recent book, Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall.

ELLIOTT: Barbara Heyman.

Ms. BARBARA HEYMAN (Author): I'm the author of Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music.

ELLIOTT: And Mortimer Frank.

Mr. MORTIMER FRANK (Author): And I am author of Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years, and have had my life shaped by Toscanini.

(Soundbite of "Adagio for Strings")

Ms. HEYMAN: This is a work that everybody recognizes, but not everybody knows who wrote it or the name of it. And that's somewhat ironic when you think that it has sort of become our national funeral music, played at the funeral of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Grace Kelly, on the radio all the time when John F. Kennedy died.

Mr. HOROWITZ: It's also used famously in a war movie, Platoon. That's one of the reasons that it continues to be so well known. This is a very sad, stately piece, and it sounds religious. In fact, it sounds like Bach. Somebody who didn't like this piece would call it ersatz Bach. I don't think it sounds particularly American.

Ms. HEYMAN: Toscanini was a legend in his time. He did not perform very much contemporary music, let alone American music. And for him to decide he was going to broadcast this nationwide was extraordinary.

Mr. HOROWITZ: Toscanini was for decades the most famous classical musician in the United States. In fact, he was the veritable symbol of classical music for Americans. And his fame was such that he appeared on the cover of Life magazine, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He was more widely known than any classical musician today.

Mr. FRANK: Here on the one hand he is often considered the most dynamic, the most intense, the most powerful, overwhelmingly arresting conductor of his time. And overlooked in all of these reasonably accurate assertions is the fact that for all of the drama, for all of the power, for all of the intensity, he was also capable of wonderful delicacy and tenderness and gentleness. And he knew how to deal with a piece like this, which essentially is a very lyrical, gentle piece in so many ways, and present it directly and without - and this is the most important quality - without sentimentality, without excess, without making it sound overly sweet and cloying.

(Soundbite of "Adagio for Strings")

Ms. HEYMAN: The Adagio for String Orchestra, written by Samuel Barber. It's a precise piece emotionally. You never are in any doubt about what this piece is about. It begins, it reaches its climax, it makes its point, and it goes away. There's a kind of sadness and poetry about it. It has a melodic gesture that reaches an arch like a big sigh, I suppose, and then exhales and fades off into nothingness. That would be my personal way of describing it.

(Soundbite of "Adagio for Strings")

Mr. FRANK: The world situation at the time, put simply, was that the world was falling apart.

(Soundbite of recording)

Chancellor ADOLPH HITLER (Germany): (Speaking German)

Mr. FRANK: Hitler had been elected chancellor in 1933. Mussolini, who had been elected earlier in Italy, became a tyrannical fascist. War was about to break out. Racism and anti-Semitism was rampant.

Mr. HOROWITZ: Toscanini very early on, practically from the moment that Hitler became head of state in 1933, was a prominent spokesperson for oppressed Jews in Germany. Toscanini was a ferocious Democrat. He signed a statement, for instance, that was signed by other musicians in '33 that made it onto the front page in the New York Times, and the headline was Toscanini Heads Protest Against Hitler, or words to that effect.

Mr. FRANK: The Italian press branded him an honorary Jew who should be shot. His phone was tapped and all of the license plates of visitors to his house were recorded. Mussolini revoked his passport in 1938. And a lot of people really were worried that he would die. He had to come back in the fall of 1938 for his second NBC season. The world press started to take Toscanini's side and finally, five days before Toscanini was supposed to return to the United States, Mussolini relented and Toscanini was able to come back. He was a very brave man in the face of what was a terrible, terrible world situation.

(Soundbite of "Adagio for Strings")

Mr. HOROWITZ: Toscanini's wartime concerts in New York, and I'm talking about the war beginning in the '30s, I'm not just talking about the war beginning for the United States in 1941, but the concerts he gave once he was so closely identified with the opposition to Mussolini and the opposition to Hitler, I would say these were the peak public events in the history of classical music in America. I don't think any concerts before or since excited such an intense emotional response. I don't think any concerts before or since evoked such an intense sense of moral mission.

(Soundbite of "Adagio for Strings")

ELLIOTT: The 1938 NBC radio broadcast of Arturo Toscanini conducting Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. Another chapter from the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. Produced by Ben Manilla and Media Mechanics.

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