Sad Songs of Hope and Joy

We have recently given some attention to the Molto Adagio from Barber’s String Quartet in B Minor, Opus 11. The deserved fame of this beautiful and tragic middle movement contrasts with the angular and tempestuous outer movements, which are as well-known as one might expect for a twentieth century American string quartet. That the Adagio should be such a cultural phenomenon in its own right testifies to this contrast; it can be no coincidence that the movement itself is in B Flat Minor, whose constituent notes are diametrically different from the quartet’s home key, producing a concomitant divergence of mood. The Adagio has something in common with Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet, considered here previously, in that although it began life in quartet form it was later transplanted to full string orchestra, in order to explore the original material with a wider and richer palette of sounds. Like the Eighth Quartet though the Adagio remains at its most perfect in the raw and brutally intimate setting of the quartet rather than the more impersonal orchestral environment.