In 1938 the then 27 year old Samuel Barber sent the orchestrated version of Adagio for string to Arturo Toscanini. He got it back with no response. Thinking the famous conductor was rude and didn’t even deign to give the piece any comments, Barber was annoyed. The contrary was true: Toscanini wanted to perform the piece, he just memorised it. The story goes he didn’t look at the music until right before the premiere. On the 5th of November it premiered in Rockefeller Centre, New York.
Maybe the most famous piece of American music started its life as the second part of Barber’s String Quartet in B minor. He wrote it while living in Austria with his partner, after having travelled in Europe as part of the Prix de Rome. Adagio refers to the tempo of the piece. Barber experienced issues with the third and last part of the quartet, so he kept revising it until 1943. The orchestral version of the Adagio was by that time already world famous: from the start it was recorded and broadcast.
The famous emotional effect might be caused by the lower strings being slightly later than the violins. That causes a uneasy suspension in the music. Add to that the slow upward progression of the pitch, and you have a piece that just yearns for completion. From the start the chords ask to find a solution, but that solution is only very slowly given. A true masterpiece.
The other works on this record might not be on the same level, but together they give a good view on Twentieth century American music.