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Exploring Music: Famous Adagios

The MHS Review 371 Vol. 10, No. 11 1986

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David M. Greene


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I started to say that at least two of the selections on this release are undeniable famous, but in a world in which most college graduates have no idea whether Grieg and Sibelius were composers or a law firm, that is a dangerous assumption.  Certainly it’s been a long time since I heard either piece in concert or on the air.  One is the movement usually known as “Morning Mood,” from Grieg’s music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, though here it is Frenchified as Le matin.  It depicts daybreak in the Sahara, where the scapegrace Peer is about to begin an abortive career as Moslem prophet, and is labeled Allegro pastorale, which is a long way from Adagio in my books. Despite its gloomy subject, Sibelius’ Valse triste (Sad Waltz) used to be a best seller in my day.  It was written for the play Kuolema (Death) and authored by the composer’s brother-in-law; it accompanies a scene in which a woman dances with Death, mistaking him for her husband. 

Two or three of the other pieces are (were) perhaps almost as well know.  As the title indicates, Rachmaninoff  wrote the vocalize as a wordless song; the orchestration is his own. Samuel Barber similarly orchestrated the slow movement of  his string quartet.  Its broadcast byt Toscanini and the NBC Symphony when the composer was only 28 not only was an unusual gesture on the conductor’s part but put Barber on the map as one of the most admired American composers of his time.

Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies were relatively early works and were not intended as Satiean spoofs. The name derives from that of a slow choral dance performed in ancient Greece my nude youths, and Satie strives to give his examples a kind of stasis and unemotional remoteness.  His sometime good friend Debussy orchestrated two of them eight years later.

However pleasant, the remain pieces hardly qualify as famous.  Notre Dame (after Victor Hugo’s novel) was the first and more successful of the two operas by Franz Schmidt, perhaps better know as a symphonist, and sometime cellist of the Vienna Philharmonic under Mahler, with whom he got along not at all.  The opera is occasionally revived in Mitteleuropa, as witness my two (count ‘em!) pirated records.

Pietro Mascagni had the misfortune to write one of the most white-hot of all operas (Cavalleria rusticana), up to which none of his others manage to live. L”amico-Fritz (Friend of Fritz) a gentle love story set in Alsace, is one of the more successful.  Finally there is Khachaturian’s “Adagio of Aegina and Harmodius” from an endless ballet.  Spartacus, dear to Soviet hearts, dealing as it does with a revolt by proles. 

Review of Famous Adagios Page 3

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