Today we take a break from solo string repertoire to bask in the glory of a composition known simply as the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. The orchestral version of this work, which we will be listening to here, is actually an arrangement of the second movement of Barber’s String Quartet No. 11, an adaptation which Barber made in 1936.
Barber certainly had a way with composing for string instruments, as evidenced by his violin concerto (which we will also sample in upcoming weeks). His Adagio contains perhaps some of the most beautiful melodies and progressions ever written for string orchestra, and the work certainly has an emotional impact on the listener. I hope you enjoy!
I remember when I first saw the music for Eugene Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas for Solo Violin (see example below). The first thought that went through my head was, “How in the world am I supposed to even begin to decipher this?!” Fortunately, having grown up a Suzuki student, I knew to find a good recording and learn to sing the piece all the way through in my head before even trying to study the music.
Ysaÿe was a violinist of the highest quality, having been fortunate enough to study with Henryk Weiniawski and Henri Vieuxtemps – both violinists extraordinaire themselves and also both composers of fantastic violin concertos and other superb works for the violin. His goal in writing his Sonatas (of which there are 6) was to provide for the 1900s what Bach’s 6 Sonatas & Partitas had provided to the 1700s – that is, a work representative of the culmination of violin technique to that time.
Being relatively modern in their composition, Ysaÿse’s Sonatas are likely somewhat strange to your ears. However, their is a particular beauty to them, particularly when played by the likes of Augustin Hadelich. Listen all the way to the end!
Of all the countless composers who have walked the earth over the centuries, Beethoven had perhaps the most unique ability to capture something about the essence of what it is to be human in his music. And his music reflected everything – from the pain, to the joy, from the longing, to the satisfaction.
The third movement of Beethoven’s 15th string quartet is a wonderful example of this quality of his music. Beethoven wrote this movement after recovering from an illness which he feared would claim his life. In this movement, the listener can find both the sorrowful spirit of one who has resigned themselves to death, and later the jubilant spirit of one who has found that they shall have life yet longer.
If you’ve ever wondered whether music has power, take a listen to this movement, and then see what you think! I’ve included both a recording that follows the score so you can see what the quartet players would see, and a live recording of a group at the Fischoff competition, which is an annual competition for ensembles aged 22 and younger held in Indiana. Enjoy!
The arpeggione was an instrument – something like the wedding of a guitar and a small cello – invented in the early 1800s that had a brief flash of popularity before fading out of the cultural zeitgeist. While it was in vogue, however, Schubert composed a sonata for it and piano.
Though the arpeggione no longer exists en masse, Schubert’s sonata has been transcribed for cello and/or viola most commonly, although arrangements can also be found for violin. The sonata on the whole is alternatively lighthearted and playful and warm and sensual – characteristics which Yo-Yo Ma conveys well in his performance selected below.
Sometimes you’re just in the mood for something powerful and triumphant, something to lift your spirits and fill you with the best that humanity is capable of. In those times, you need look no further than the Egmont Overture by L. Beethoven.
Written to accompany a play entitled Egmont, the Overture kicks off the whole affair. The play itself tells the tale of Lamoral, Court of Egmont, whose execution in 1568 led to the Eighty Years’ War and the independence of the Netherlands. So, the nationalistic, heroic tone of the Overture is understandable.
As always, Beethoven was able to use orchestration so effectively to convey raw emotion in such a powerful way. I trust that you’ll find this overture invigorating! As a side note, I have included yet another recording from the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. The man is a legend in the field of conducting, and though the recording is old the performance itself is of the highest quality.
If you’re in need of some beauty in your life – and I think if we’re honest we could all use a little more of it – I would recommend taking a listen to Julia Fischer’s Bach for solo violin. Here I have selected the Minuets from the 3rd Partita in E Major, which are short, simple, and light-hearted. But her complete catalogue is available on Spotify or even on YouTube.
Every concert violinist worth their salt records the unaccompanied Bach Sonatas & Partitas at least once – often many times – in their career, so there is no lack of listening options out there. However, Fischer’s displays a depth, character, warmth, and resonance unique to her and I think is noteworthy among the others. When she plays, it truly feels like Bach is living through his music to this day!
There are, of course, a million things that one could point out as being done excellently, here. As a teacher, however, I couldn’t help but immediately notice how well this young man was doing all the basics while performing something complex, and complex this piece is – it’s the longest and most technically challenging from the cornerstone of violin repertoire that is Bach’s 6 Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin.
“Look how low and relaxed his violin thumb is!” I was saying to myself as I watched him play.
“Look how curved and tall his violin fingers are!”
“Look how close he keeps his fingers to the strings to minimize effort and maximize accuracy!”
These are all things that we talk about in various ways and at different levels in lessons every week! What a great example this is of someone who has turned all those individual ideas into habits that form the foundation of his masterful playing. Please take the time to watch and enjoy!