Category Archives: String Orchestra

The Strange Genius of the Adagio for Strings

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 2 Nov 2015]


Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings didn’t start out the way we know it now. In this feature for WRTI, I look at the inescapable strangeness of this work that is now one of the most heard and most moving pieces in the repertoire.

When Samuel Barber wrote Adagio for Strings, it was for string quartet, and it was the middle movement of three. That explains a good deal about this piece we always hear with string orchestra.

Barber, all of 26, composed the two outside movements in a string-friendly key of two sharps, but the middle movement is in an awful key for strings—five flats.

The opening single note is joined by a collective sigh of the most pointed sadness, then traces a meandering, slowly ascending chant. The accompanying voices rarely cadence together, but achingly suspend themselves time and again. Barber’s combination of calm pacing and intensifying background mesmerizes in its trajectory to a shattering climax in the upper reaches of the strings eight minutes later.

The altitude, pacing, and tuning make this incredibly difficult to play well, even for four virtuosos in a quartet, let alone an entire string orchestra. It doesn’t even end on the home chord, because the original led directly onto the next movement.

Samuel Barber was never pleased with that last movement, almost as if he intuited that nothing could follow the Adagio. He knew its power and immediately arranged it—by itself—for string orchestra.

It’s a disquieting piece. But in the last hundred years, it is also probably the most-heard orchestral work in the world.

The Red Book of Montserrat premieres at Kimmel

KimmelI could hardly have been happier at the premiere of The Red Book of Montserrat last night at the Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia. This newest string orchestra work is a 20-minute suite commissioned by the Philadelphia Sinfonia, Gary White, music director. There’s more information here about the work and how I went about composing it.

One of the things I wanted to make sure to mention in my remarks from the stage before the performance was how fortunate I felt in having these young people play my music. I said that I was looking over my shoulder a bit, because The Red Book was sandwiched between Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, and Scheherazade, composed by Rimsky-Korsakov.

I hold R-K in the highest reverence as a composer and most especially, as an orchestrator (you can’t really separate the two, but that’s another article), and so, as I felt Tchaikovsky’s presence last week with Three Dances, I was certainly aware of Rimsky last night. He can spring an orchestra’s sound off the stage like nobody else. I was laughing and shaking my head at all the brilliant instrumental chess moves he was making all evening.

But, as I said before my piece, I had an ace in the hole: the players of Sinfonia and their conductor. They were marvelous. Red Book made its impact with their impassioned performance. The many small (and not so small) first-chair solos were lovely, the overlapping washes of sound in the fourth movement were delicious, the dance rhythms were crisp, the sound was big and juicy.

As I also said, I’m honored and humbled by being allowed to compose, and to compose for the Philadelphia Sinfonia. A thrilling performance, a thrilling concert!

Thrilling to hear Three Dances in its new version for strings

ThreeDancesStr2013scp24On Saturday, May 11th, Aaron Picht conducted the Temple University Music Preparatory Division Youth Chamber Orchestra in the premiere of the new version of my Three Dances. It was the closing concert of the Festival of Young Musicians, held at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, which incidentally has fantastic acoustics for string orchestra.

The evening was a warm farewell to Luis Biava, who’s retiring after 27 years running this orchestra at Temple Prep. Alumna Elizabeth Pitcairn also appeared, to perform “Spring” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

I’ve mentioned before how musical the playing was that Aaron brought out from these players, but I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful and uplifting the performance was. Bravo to him, and to all the players.

I re-orchestrated this for strings alone, after two other versions, partly just to see if I could, after excising winds, brass, foot-stomping, and percussion. It was a fun challenge to fit everything in. However, at the forefront of my thinking was not to create an experiment, but a repertoire piece for the traditional string orchestra ensemble. A piece like, well, the gold standard of string orchestra pieces, the Tchaikovsky Serenade.

So what did they play immediately after Three Dances? Yup. The Tchaikovsky Serenade.

I saw the program and got the yips, and boy did the Tchaik live up to its reputation. It’s overflowing with everything you want in a string piece: richness, tunefulness, energy, glow. I kept thinking while they were playing it, “Oh man, this is how you write for string orchestra.”

But after all was played and done I came away elated. Three Dances held up. It sounded full and brilliant, and I felt that the music leapt from the stage. Aaron kept reaching deeper and deeper into the piece, and the players gave it. Three Dances doesn’t sound like Tchaikovsky (thankfully, since I’d make a poor Tchaikovsky), but it sounded like it belonged up there, with him and Vivaldi and Grandjany (with five harps—gorgeous!) and Paganini and Schubert. What a wonderful experience that was.

Now I get to pore over Aaron’s bowings and learn some more. And on Thursday, to hear the premiere of another string orchestra piece.

Premiere of new Three Dances

ThreeDancesStr2013scExcerpt,jpgI’m looking forward to the premiere of the new version of my Three Dances tonight. Aaron Picht conducts the Temple University Music Preparatory Division Youth Chamber Orchestra at the Festival of Young Musicians, Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, at 7:30 pm.

Aaron has brought out wonderful musicianship from these young, excellent players, so I know the entire concert will be exciting.

This started as a chamber orchestra work, then string orchestra with one percussion, and now, just strings. Along the way I removed the foot stomping in the Country Dance. Which, by the way, was the entire inspiration for the Country Dance, that sound of feet on a barn floor, now that I think of it. Which, by the way, I’ve heard, as I’ve danced on a barn floor once.

Yes, there were other people there, and they were dancing, too.

The Red Book of Montserrat


The Red Book of Montserrat is a suite for string orchestra commissioned by the Philadelphia Sinfonia, the excellent youth orchestra Gary White directs. It sets five of the ten songs from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, the 14th-century book of music and texts from the monastery in Spain. Montserrat is a holy site of pilgrimage, a shrine to the Virgin Mary; the songs praise her and appeal to her for guidance. The tunes are well-known to early-music aficionados and played often in various guises by many ensembles. I wanted to see how they might dance in a string orchestra.

One of the challenges in composing this was to maintain interest in a strings-only setting of repeated verses meant for singing. I employed a variety of string techniques to do this, by no means avant-garde: some harmonics, divisi, pizzicato, solo writing. But they were enough, I thought, to keep the players on their toes while playing archaic rhythms in a modal harmonic language.

My hopes were that they would enjoy learning a new, energetic work, and that I would have used the traditional string ensemble to full advantage.

The piece is about 20 minutes long. The Philadelphia Sinfonia premiered 16 May 2013 at the Perelman Theatre, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia. A sneak preview of movements 2 and 3 was performed 17 Feb 2013 at St. Stephen’s Church, 10th Street below Market in Philadelphia.

These are the movements and descriptions, with the original Llibre Vermell order of songs and titles, the full score, and recorded excerpts from the premiere:

Full score

1. Empress of the Joyous City of Paradise 

#9, Imperayritz de la ciutat joyosa de paradis. Uses solos and half-sections to alter the color. Prominent is the hemiola rhythm, typical of early music, which splits the 6/4 bar two different ways, 3+3 and 2+2+2.

2. O Virgin, Shining Brightly 

#1, O Virgo splendens. “O resplendent Virgin, here on the high mountain, glowing with miraculous wonders, where the believers from everywhere ascend. Ah, with your gentle loving eye behold those caught in the bonds of sin, to let them not suffer the blows of Hell, but let them be with the blessed by your intercession.” A chant-like, rolling melody. The three-part canon is indicated in the original manuscript; I underlaid it with simple, musing bass lines.

3. Splendid Star on the Mountain 

#2, Stella splendens. The repeating verses are interspersed with a chorus of the same music, heightening the need for unflagging interest in the orchestration. Solos with varying degrees of embellishment are used throughout.

4. Our Queen above All Heavens 

#6, Polorum Regina. Meditative and static with simple imitation of a glowing melody, this splits some string sections into three parts over a ruminating bass.

5. We Hasten to Death 

#10, Ad mortem festinamus. A sermon in the decidedly non-morbid, rollicking, Totentanz tradition: “We hasten to death, let us desist from sin. I have resolved to write about the contempt of the world, so that this degenerate age will not pass in vain. Now is the hour to rise from the evil sleep of death. Life is short, and shortly it will end; death arrives faster than anyone believes.” Everyone from king to priest to rich to pauper joins hands with Death. And dances.

The Three Graces

The Three Graces
Orchestral (original) version: oboe, horn, cello soloists, string orchestra. 11′. Full score
Premiere of original version: 
Chamber version: oboe, horn, cello soloists, piano, double bass. 11′. Score
Premiere of chamber version, first 8 minutes: 

I composed The Three Graces over the chord changes to the chorus of “Wait Till You See Her” by Richard Rodgers. After the introduction and statement of the tune (original to The Three Graces), the soloists take turns on the choruses, first playing two choruses each, then trading off in various ways.

This started out to be a concerto grosso, but an immersion into the complete recordings of Miles Davis got me to thinking how like a jazz combo the concerto grosso formula can be. So I decided to try to compose a work of straight jazz. I grew up listening to my parents’ popular jazz albums, so the sounds of random slices from the 1940s and ’50s—of the Hi-Lo’s (from whom I learned “Wait Till You See Her”); Lambert, Hendricks & Ross; Dave Brubeck; Maynard Ferguson’s A Message from Newport 1958; Billie Holiday; Stan Getz; and of every solo on the 1947 “Star Dust” by Lionel Hampton with the Just Jazz All Stars (especially bassist Slam Stewart’s)—all these sounds inform The Three Graces, which is an homage to them all.

It was my intention for the solos to come across as improvisations. The strings (or piano and bass in the chamber version) take the role of a drummer-less rhythm section, playing what I take to be a mix of swing and early be-bop. I hoped to capture the excitement of something that sounded like it was being made up on the spot, although there is also a great tradition of written-out ensemble jazz.

This is especially an homage to our three daughters, each of the soloists taking on the character of one of the girls. Priscilla, the oldest, was just starting to learn the oboe when I wrote this. Nellie, then six, was the soulful horn. At four, Martina was to be the cellist in this fantasy piece, and cuts in with her first (Slam-inspired) solo before her turn. The two younger girls did not play instruments then, but each later decided to play, in real life, exactly the instrument I assigned to the other one.

Original version for soloists with string orchestra premiered 2,3 Apr 2001 by Gerard Reuter, oboe, Karl Kramer, horn, Wolfram Kössel, cello, and the Jupiter Symphony in New York City, Jens Nygaard conducting. Chamber version (soloists with double bass and piano) premiered 15 Feb 2008 by soloists Priscilla Smith, Patrick Hines, Rajli Bicolli, with Leon Boykins and Jeremy Gill at Rock Hall, Temple University, Philadelphia. Duration, about 11 minutes.

Three Dances, for string orchestra

Three Dances, for string orchestra
str. 12′. Review. View full score

1. Introduction and Country Dance 
2. Waltz 
3. Fuguing Tune 

The melody in the Introduction is the first half of the Lutheran chorale “Eins ist Not, ach Herr, dies Eine.” In the Country Dance, the recurring melody, carried mostly by the lower voices, is a variant on an early American fuguing tune called “Eternal Day.”

The Waltz is actually a passacaglia employing six pitches: D, F#, G, G#, A, C#. Every note in the movement is from this group. Whether the pitches create a scale or give the impression of the outline of a scale is debatable, but the large gaps and the reliance on the tritone abet the feeling of absence and longing.

The beginning of the Fuguing Tune repeats the truncated chorale of the Introduction, leaving the long 6/8 section as the fuguing part. The melody here is a variant of the English carol “A Virgin most Pure.” The second half of the Lutheran chorale appears as the repeating bass line in this movement at, for example, measures 21-25.

Here are details about the re-orchestration of this in 2013.

Commissioned by the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra, Donald Spieth, Music Director, and premiered March 9, 10, 11, 1995. The string orchestra version, with percussion, was premiered by the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia November 8, 1998. Revised and percussion removed, 2012-13, for a performance by the Temple University Music Preparatory Division Youth Chamber Orchestra, Aaron Picht conducting, at the Festival of Young Musicians, Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, 11 May 2013.