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Timings -- thoughts about the quirkiness of some of music's hidden secrets

Adding to Adages about Adagios

Two of the most celebrated Adagios written during the 20th century have become very widely known under somewhat false pretences.

It was Toscanini who suggested to Samuel Barber that he arrange the slow movement of his (Barber's) string quartet (1936), for string orchestra. Toscanini first conducted this arrangement two years later with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Since then, its wonderful and rich melody full of delicious suspensions hasn't looked back in the popularity stakes. It has been arranged for just about every ensemble including large chorus and is as much a showstopper as another much celebrated and very wrongly, attributed piece.

Tomaso Albinoni was born in Venice in 1671. A fine violinist and composer, he directed the Venetian Academy of Singing. Unlike many less fortunate artists, Albinoni's father encouraged him and relieved him of the burden of assuming the responsibility of the family business of printing stationery. Thus, Tomaso was free to bury himself in music in all his chosen variety of predilections.

But history has not retained Albinoni's own work at the top of the list of his 'compositions', by which to remember those efforts made possible by the kindness of his devoted entourage.

The famous Adagio is based upon a tiny fragment of manuscript -- a mere six bars of melody and bass line; all that remain today of the slow movement of a trio sonata in Albinoni's own hand.

Dresden was largely destroyed during the Second World War. However, discovering this microscopic fragment fascinated the Milan-based Remo Giazotto. He was diligently preparing a biography about the baroque composer when he came across this snippet during his research in Dresden's library. The fleeting phrase was very much to his taste and he reconstructed and composed the presently well-known work into its now familiar entirety, in 1945. The 'Albinoni' Adagio was therefore written almost a decade after that of Samuel Barber! It materialized from Giazotto's pen as Dresden has since happily risen from its ashes. However, it is not without irony that Albinoni's most popular 'composition' would, in fact, be all but unrecognizable to Tomaso Albinoni himself.

As the musical wit, musician and author Fritz Spiegl (1926-2003) commented in his book Music Through The Looking Glass:

The Adagio of Albinoni
Is largely phony
And is a musical risotto
Cooked up by Giazotto.

'Albinoni's' Adagio was a favorite of Jim Morrison and his group, The Doors, which recorded it. Morrison is buried in the Cemetery du Pere-Lachaise in Paris alongside many celebrated musicians, including Georges Bizet, Frédéric Chopin and Edith Piaf.

The 20th century made works very popular through its increasing techniques of communication. As with the film Amadeus by Milos Forman, how much of Mozart's real personality, let alone accurate life story pads out the screenplay?

Of the three composers I cite, Samuel Barber is surely the only one to be accurately represented. He did arrange his own string quartet into the success its slow movement has now become. Albinoni and Mozart may have had very different opinions if, like Barber, they been consulted about their work.

A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives the rose. -- Chinese proverb

Copyright © 2 April 2005 Jennifer I Paull, Vouvry, Switzerland



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