Samuel Barber probably didn't know he'd end up writing America's Sad Song.
In 1936 Barber composed his First String Quartet. Two years later, he arranged its slow movement for string orchestra. In 1945 this Adagio for Strings was played at a memorial service for Franklin D. Roosevelt, beginning its life as our nation's iconic mourning music. The song has signaled tragedy and loss in many film soundtracks (in Oliver Stone's “Platoon,” for instance), and was the most frequently played music in commemorations of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
If that's what Barber had in mind for his adagio, he never said so. Mostly, he complained that its popularity diverted attention from his other works. But composers, like most artists, don't get the last word on how their music is perceived and put to use.
That's something to bear in mind when scanning the program of “Music in Times of Civil Unrest,” a concert by the Richmond Symphony and two choruses — the University of Richmond's Schola Cantorum and the James River Singers — Friday, Jan. 30, at the university's Modlin Center.
The concert is one of the highlights of “Art and War,” a series of art exhibitions, lectures, and dance and music events spanning the school year at the university. Most of them explicitly address war and civil strife, but musical evocations can be inferential or — as with the Barber adagio — unintentional, observes Jeffrey Riehl, director of the UR chorus.
His group will sing an excerpt from Joseph Haydn's “Mass in Time of War.” During rehearsals, Riehl says, “the reaction of a lot of students was, ‘Gosh, this is awfully pleasant music for a time of civil unrest.’ I had to explain about the turbulent history at the time,” when Napoleon's army was storming across Europe, “and how Haydn used trumpets and kettle drums to give the piece a militaristic cast. And still it seemed a stretch for them” to hear the mass as a product of wartime.
Friday's program pairs Barber's adagio with excerpts from the Chamber Symphony adapted from Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8. This work seems to be more clearly focused on World War II and its aftermath — the composer dedicated his quartet “to the victims of war and fascism.” But that may have been a politically correct gesture by Shostakovich, whose Soviet masters constantly parsed his music for signs of ideological deviancy.
“It's just as likely that Shostakovich was writing autobiographically,” says Erin Freeman, the symphony's associate conductor. “The heart of the piece is a four-note motif based on his initials, and the tone of this music is intensely personal.”
Freeman, who's been leading a symphony residency at Hanover High School on music and other art forms called “In Times of Crisis,” says that a lot of “war music” tips itself off as propaganda — “the biggest red flag is using a patriotic or folk melody in a very obvious way,” she observes. Other works, though, just happen to come out of troubled times and come to “embody feelings that no one can find the words to express.” S
“Music in Times of Civil Unrest” is Friday, Jan. 30, at 7:30 p.m. at UR's Modlin Arts Center. Admission is free, but tickets are required. Call 289-8980 or visit www.modlin.richmond.edu.
The symphony and performers from Hanover High School will conclude the “In Times of Crisis” residency with a free concert featuring Aaron Copland's “A Lincoln Portrait,” Thursday, Jan. 29, at 7 p.m. at the school, 10307 Chamberlayne Road. 723-3700.
Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at www.letterv.blogspot.com.