Second to the works by George Gerschwin, the second movement of his string quartet by Samuel Barber is arguably the most famous piece of all American classical music.
This simple fact by itself is rather unexpected since chamber music and string quartets in particular aren't noticeably popular among people without musical education or training. And yet, this work by S. Barber has acquired an extraordinary status in the U.S.A and beyond where it has become some sort of official music for remembrance and commemorations.
This is an opportunity to remember that string quartets as a genre has been widely practised by American musicians from Charles Ives, the first one to achieve fame, to Kenneth Fuchs, including Elliott Carter or John Cage and Philip Glass, the most prolific of them all being Milton Adolphus who wrote no less than 35 string quartets!
Samuel Barber's adagio may be one of the most famous pieces of American classical music yet Barber's a much less known figure than Leonard Bernstein who probably is the icon of American music.
Although Bernstein didn't write any string quartet, like some 600 American musicians he was a student of Nadia Boulanger, a French composer and teacher who was a key figure of Western music in the XXth, training conductors like Igor Markevich or Daniel Baremboïm and musicians like Burt Bacharach and George Antheil! Here is an extensive list of the musicians, most of them Americans, Nadia Boulanger taught to.
Isn’t it worth noticing that while America owes nothing to Europe re Jazz which is the epitome of the American musical uniqueness, a large part of her classical education was made in France by this revered French woman who Aaron Copland describes in these terms:
This intellectual Amazon is not only professor at the Conservatoire, is not only familiar with all music from Bach to Stravinsky, but is prepared for anything worse in the way of dissonance. But make no mistake... A more charming womanly woman never lived.