One of Barber's earliest musical memories was a visit to the Metropolitan Opera where, at age six, he attended a performance of Aida with legendary tenor Enrico Caruso as Radames and Louise Homer, Barber's aunt, as Amneris. A host of childhood experiences like these seemed almost to predispose Barber to compose for the voice. By the time he graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Barber had developed into a fine baritone and was in some demand as a recitalist. It was Barber himself who made the first recording of his own Dover Beach.
These settings of English Victorian poet Matthew Arnold begin with a reverie on the English coast, describing its stoic beauty, yet revealing an "eternal note of sadness." The opening texture is comprised of two solo violins, one of which presents a steady, undulating rhythm while the other invokes the pensive main theme. The music becomes immediately restrained, characterizing a more reasoned state of mind, with the stanza describing the sound of the sea, which "Sophocles long ago heard…on the Aegean." The activated violin texture returns, with the incessant overlapping of short motives. The cello intones the main theme for the last three lines of text bringing us back to the melancholy opening.
Water, it seems, was an important image for Barber. In the same year which produced Dover Beach, he arranged the Adagio from his String Quartet, Op. 11, a piece which he described as a river gaining momentum on its way to the sea, and which is now known as his beloved Adagio for Strings.
— Christopher Anderson-Bazzoli is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Publications Assistant.