Barber String Quartet in Bm, op. 11

performed by the Quatuor Diotima

(cover image by Frantzou Fleurine)

Everyone knows the middle movement, but what about what comes before and after it? This quartet, while an early work, is powerful and more than worthy of a listen from beginning to end. It’s an example of how a work can be even more powerful when taken in context, how the entire piece forms one whole, and while a single movement may be almost unbearably moving, the work really is intended to be heard in full.

We’ve actually already discussed a few of Barber’s previous works, but never did give him a little biography. Wikipedia is there for that, but he was born on March 9, 1910 in West Chester, PA, into a privileged family with connections to music. He became fascinated by music at an early age, entered the Curtis Institute by age 14, studying composition, voice, and piano, setting him up for the successes in his career.

The most famous of these, down to this day is surely his Adagio for Strings, which we shall not actually discuss. It’s an arrangement for string orchestra of the middle movement of this quartet. The composer finished the arrangement the same year the quartet was finished, in 1936, and conducted by Toscanini. This string orchestra version has been broadcast upon the announcement of the deaths of people such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Kennedy, and Princess Diana, and at the funerals of people such as Einstein, Princess Grace of Monaco, and many more.

However, although this string orchestra version has a very powerful effect and is extremely moving, the string quartet version is poignant in a different way, an intimate, solemn, almost private way.

Barber began work on his only string quartet in 1935, while living in Austria with Gian Carlo Menotti. The work was originally to be performed by the Curtis String Quartet, but was not finished in time, lacking a finale. The work with a first version of the finale was performed on December 14, 1946 by the Pro Arte Quartet. The finale was rewritten a number of times, and finally performed in the version we know today on May 28, 1943 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The most interesting question for me here, as I mentioned at the opening, is how our perceptions of the work change when appreciated as a whole. The composer obviously didn’t mind the adagio being performed separately by a string orchestra, as it was he who arranged it, but in string quartet form, the entire work, bookended by two faster movements, still lasts less than twenty minutes.

I’ve always felt that pulling a single movement out of a work is kind of an injustice to the greater whole. Mahler’s Adagietto is another example, but perhaps more understandable when you don’t have the hour for the entire rest of the symphony. Still sacrilege.

Anyway, what do we gain from these two shorter surrounding movements? Well, they form a very strong contrast to the famous adagio, but there is also a strong similarity among them.

The first movement is in sonata form. It begins with an aggressive, angular figure, with dotted rhythms and intense pauses, a crunchy sound that’s almost strident compared with that middle movement everyone knows. On the one hand it’s a clear, almost predictable contrast, the sense of near violence and bite is a very different kind of intensity. But again, we have a sonata form, and a contrast to that first theme is clear, with a much friendlier, tender subject, friendly and even almost cheerful. This movement presents content of equal importance to the adagio, as we shall see.

The first movement, after its rhythmic shifts and ascents and descents, ends quietly, and the B flat of the adagio begins. It’s really unnecessary to describe what this movement presents, but a listener may be so overcome by emotion, so moved by the music that Barber’s written that we may not be listening objectively. What I mean by that is it wasn’t until I looked at the score that I saw that it’s almost all stepwise motion: a line up, then back down, then up again, or pretty close.

As if having crystallized emotion, frozen it in time, everything seems slower here because the movement is marked in time signatures like 4/2, 5/2 and 6/2 and changes rather often. Again, this isn’t very apparent to the listener, at least not me, because rather than a rhythmic heartbeat or any kind of pulse, there’s just a constant outpouring of sound.

But that brings me to they similarities between these two obviously contrasting movements. For one, there are constant shifts in rhythm underlying the work that give it a sense of instability. This is more obvious in the first movement, but in the second, we also hear, although it’s not as obvious, a sense of wandering, an ebb and flow of notes. Secondly, they both also have some pronounced stepwise figures, most notably the opening themes of each of the movements.

But aside from this one-to-one contrast, there’s still a (slightly) bigger picture. These first two movements, at least in the Diotima’s reading, are of just about equal length, and then we have, without pause, the finale, marked come prima, clearly revisiting the opening movement’s themes. At two and a half minutes, it seems more like a coda to the two larger movements than a standalone movement of its own, but it gives us a kind of arch form, the same form the central movement had, returning to the opening theme at the end. What can we learn from this?

Well, I’d say the first and final movements, being quite the same in spirit, give an additional intensity to the adagio, in the same way that a little salt (or cayenne pepper, even) can enhance the flavors of chocolate, bringing out its sweetness or other layers of flavor. It puts this emotional climax in context, makes it more meaningful. We also see the difference that a quartet gives us, a more intimate, even raw, expression. It’s not the full, supple, dramatic sound of a string orchestra, but it has its own strengths.

So that’s Barber’s quartet, something to give a listen to if you haven’t appreciated the full work before. He’s also, along with the composer we’ll see tomorrow, likely the most famous American in this series, although there’s one more later down the road, a modern guy, who most people probably know, so stay tuned, and thank you for reading.

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