String Serenade
Samuel Barber 1910-1981
Samuel Barber
Samuel Barber
Adagio for Strings

For all the hoopla over Public Radio – whose affiliates are quickly converting their classical music programming to all-news-all-the-time – gone are the days when a commercial AM radio station had its own resident symphony orchestra, much less with the world’s foremost maestro to conduct a weekly broadcast. But in 1937, NBC inaugurated its live orchestral series under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. Musically conservative in taste, Toscanini, nevertheless, was eager to include suitably lyrical works by American composers on the series. Samuel Barber submittedfor the maestro’s consideration both the First Essay for Orchestra and the Adagio for Strings, an orchestral transcription of the Adagio from his String Quartet in B minor.

Not always a paragon of tact, Toscanini sent back both scores without comment, infuriating the composer. Barber profoundly revered the conductor and had endeavored to compose something worthy of him only to receive a snub. In actuality, Toscanini, whose poor eyesight made it impossible to read a score from the podium, had kept the scores just long enough to commit them to memory and intended, as he told the composer’s friend Gian Carlo Menotti, to perform both works on the air. He premiered both on November 5, 1938.

The neo-romantic Adagio was an instant success and has remained Barber’s most popular work by far. Its emotional power lies in the imperceptible gradual buildup of tension by the repetition and elaboration of the stepwise theme in different registers and instrument combinations. Example 1 At the powerful climax there is a short pause after which the theme is restated in its original form and then winds down peacefully.
Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf     1739-1799
Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf
Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf
Sinfonia Concertante in D major, Kr. 127, for Double Bass, Viola and Orchestra

Born in Vienna, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf started his musical career as violinist in the Vienna Opera Orchestra under opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, then went on to become Hofkomponist (Court Composer) in Johannesberg (today Javornik in the Czech Republic). He spent most of his productive life in various posts in the Czech hinterland, playing the violin, staging plays and operas and composing prodigiously. To augment his meager income, one of his princely sponsors appointed him lifetime Forstmeister (Forest superintendent). In one of his trips to Vienna, Dittersdorf is said to have met Haydn, Mozart and Vanhal and the four composers spent time together playing string quartets. In his old age, suffering severely from gout, Dittersdorf dictated his autobiography to his son, finishing it two days before he died.

Dittersdorf was a prolific composer, with dozens of operas, at least 43 concertos and at least 120 sure symphonies under his belt – there are 90 others that are doubtful. He was an inveterate self-promoter and his music, especially his operas, were popular in his day. But after his death his name quickly faded.

As a genre, the sinfonia concertante is a hybrid, a cross between a symphony and the concerto grosso. Definitely a Classical invention, the style forgoes any counterpoint and retains the formal structure of a symphony. It differs from a true concerto in that it lacks a particularly virtuosic part for the soloists and uses them as part of the orchestra in the tutti passages. Dittersdorf’s work for Viola and Double Bass was composed sometime between 1764 and 1774 and first published in 1774. At the premiere Dittersdorf played the viola. Given the unusual combination of solo instruments, it appears that he was deliberately giving prominence to instruments – however important to an ensemble – that are seldom given a chance to shine.

Like a symphony, the Sinfonia Concertante is in four movements: the first a classic sonata-allegro form, the second a slow movement, the third and minuet and trio, and the finale a rondo. Generally, the soloists play along with the orchestra.

The opening movement is a textbook sonata-allegro form, beginning with a brief fanfare-like theme. Example 1 The second subject, however, is given to the two soloists. Example 2 The development is a dialogue between orchestra and the two soloists. Example 3

The Andantino features the double bass, while the viola doubles the violins. Example 4 Example 5 Oddly, in the Menuetto, the horn, rather than the bass and viola gets the solo. Example 6 The trio, however, is an unaccompanied duet between the two soloists. Example 7

The rondo finale alternates between the tutti refrain, Example 8 and two episodes for the soloists. Example 9 Dittersdorf uses the final episode as if it were a sonata form development. Example 10
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Serenade for Strings, Op. 48

Throughout his creative career, Tchaikovsky went through extreme cycles of inspiration – or lack of it – tied to his frequent bouts of deep depression and self-doubt. His music usually reflected his mood, especially the depression, but sometimes he managed to escape. One of these occasions occurred in 1880.

The year had not been productive, but in the fall he produced in quick succession two vastly dissimilar works: The bombastic 1812 Overture, composed for the consecration of the Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow to commemorate Russia’s victory over the armies of Napoleon; and the Serenade for Strings, one of his warmest, heart-felt creations.

Tchaikovsky commented on the two works: "The overture will be very loud, noisy, but I wrote it without any warm feelings of love and so it will probably be of no artistic worth. But the Serenade, on the contrary, I wrote from inner compulsion. This is a piece from the heart and so, I venture to say, it does not lack artistic worth." He wrote to his friend and publisher: “Whether because it is my latest child or because in reality it is not bad, I am terribly in love with this Serenade and can scarcely wait to have it presented to the world.”

He was not to be disappointed. The Serenade was received enthusiastically at its first performance in St. Petersburg, and the Valse had to be encored. It is surprisingly lighthearted, compared to the composer's many melancholy works and has remained a favorite with audiences ever since for its freshness and charm, its brilliant string writing, its graceful waltz, its richly expressive elegy, and its lively finale based on a Russian folk tune.

That being said, the Serenade was an accident. Although Tchaikovsky was planning a symphony, or a string quartet, when he started writing, his work gradually evolved into the Serenade, perhaps because of its lack of weighty substance. In the heading of the score, the composer wrote: “The larger the string orchestra, the better the composer's desires will be fulfilled.''

The themes of the first movement each represent a gradual increase in tempo. It opens with a majestic main theme that recurs as a frame for themovement – and the Serenad as a whole. Example 1 A transition theme gradually picks up the tempo Example 2 into the main subsidiary theme, a whirling waltz. Example 3 The Allegro section is repeated with the opening theme, serving as a frame to close the movement.

The Waltz, the equivalent of the Classical minuet/trio, is an ABA form with internal repeats Example 4 and a short contrasting middle (or B) section. Example 5

The Elegie represents the emotional heart of the Serenade. Its three themes all resemble each other in shape – each one beginning with a full measure rising scalar "upbeat." But they differ sharply in character. The first resembles an accompanied recitative, Example 6 which leads into a more lyric second theme, introduced by pizzicato strings (in the style of a guitar or lute). Example 7 The third theme is simply a variation of the second theme, although rendered more emotionally intense by its rising sequences. Example 8

The final movement, marked Tema russo (Russian theme), begins with a shimmering slow introduction, an echo of the mood of the preceding Elegie. Whether Tchaikovsky intended this Andante melody Example 9 as the Russian theme in question is not clear, since it breaks out into another Russian virtuosic Allegro con spirito, showcasing the fast staccato bowing prowess of the upper strings. Example 10 The second melody is a contrasting legato. Example 11 An extensive coda is a reprise of the very opening of the Serenade, plus a final flourish of the Allegro melody.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017