STRING QUARTET, Opus 11
I. Molto Allegro e appassionato
III. Molto Adagio – Presto
'DOVER BEACH' for string quartet and baritone, Opus 3
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that America grew out of derivative Euro-flavored music and found its own voice. This was demonstrated by Gershwin’s jazzy rhapsodies and Copland’s open-vowel sounds of the prairie or thumping Western hoe-downs. Barber, instead of drawing from the American melting pot, tapped more abstractly into the unique idealism and romanticism of the American soul.
The String Quartet consists of mirror-image outer movements anchored by the central Adagio (later scored for string orchestra but this is the original - and, I feel, superior - version). The first movement begins with a driving theme that at the last minute pulls back revealing a deceptively simple melody which then gives way to a type of hymn that conjures up, for me, the image of a white church on a small country road. Of the second movement, the great Adagio, Barber wrote in 1936 to Orlando Cole, cellist of the Curtis String Quartet (and incidentally, my father’s cello teacher): "I have just finished the slow movement of my quartet today (and) it is a knockout!" The movement is like a massive breath that builds until it reaches the climax leading to a long, slow exhalation. The last movement is an abridged echo of the first that just….vanishes. At the end one is not entirely sure that it is over, as if there should be something left under the cloud of smoke behind which it disappeared. And I’d argue that that is entirely appropriate.
"Dover Beach" is based on a poem by Matthew Arnold (1822 – 1888). It was written on the eve of World War II at the Curtis Institute, where Barber was a triple major in piano, composition, and voice. This is a brooding work for a 21-year-old with its message of “Ah, love, let us be true to one another...for the world...hath neither joy, nor love, nor light.” But these were dark times. It was also during this period at Curtis that Barber met his friend and lifelong companion, the great Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti.
Program notes by David Yang