Samuel Barber’s Original Finale

Last week’s YouTube feature shed some light on the composition of the Adagio for Strings. This week is a followup to that. Barber spent several years revising the finale to his string quartet, to the point that it is basically a rehashing of the first movement. Above is the finale that he originally wrote.

In almost all circumstances, I am in favor of following the composer’s lead when it comes to retracting their own works. Mahler thinks that the original second movement of his ‘Titan’ Symphony isn’t up to snuff? That’s fine with me. If Beethoven really thinks that his Grosse Fugue works as an independent work, and that his string quartet should get a separate finale, then let’s hear the Grosse Fugue separately. This is one instance in which I must disagree with the composer. The final version of the string quartet (which you can listen to here) is very unbalanced; the outer movements essentially serve as framing material for the Adagio. It’s one reason why the complete quartet is very rarely performed: it’s an oddity, an opportunity to hear the adagio as it was originally intended, not to hear a great quartet. This original finale appears to solve the balance issue by presenting an appropriately weighty finale. How much more popular would the whole quartet be if this original finale were in place?

Samuel Barber struggled for most of his professional life with the bigger forms. Successful large works such as the Violin Concerto, are far outnumbered by his successes in other genres – his responses to literary works, such as Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach early in life, and his operas later in life. He was a composer who made his name on his imaginative treatment of melodic material, and the narratives that his works told. How would his professional life have been changed if he had left well enough alone with this movement?


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