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Samuel Adler (b1928)

One lives but once

A 90th Birthday Celebration
Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt, Emily Freeman Brown (conductor)
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Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: February 2018
Total duration: 198 minutes 38 seconds

Cover artwork: Photograph © Louis Ozer.
 

Twenty-first century ebullience tempered by the almost classical economy of one of today's most influential and prolific composers: Samuel Adler. This triple album includes many first recordings.

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Samuel (‘Sam’) Adler is one of America’s foremost composers and pedagogues. The author of over 400 published works in a wide variety of mediums, including six symphonies and five operas, his work stands out for its rhythmic and contrapuntal vitality, its coloristic inventiveness, and its formal command, as well as for its embodiment of those deeply humane values that have come to mark the composer’s life and career. Indeed, the title of his recently published memoir, Building Bridges with Music, alludes to his significant participation as a mediator between contemporary music and traditional institutions, Judaism and Christianity, and America and the rest of the world.

Some of Adler’s more familiar works include Southwestern Sketches for wind ensemble, Summer Stock for orchestra, Concertinos Nos 1 and 3 for string orchestra, Sonata for French horn and piano, Four Dialogues for euphonium and marimba, the String Quartets Nos 3 and 9, and a series of compositions for solo instruments under the title Cantos (not unlike the Sequenzas of Luciano Berio). He is also particularly well known for his Jewish liturgical music, including a popular setting of the Hebrew prayer ‘Ha-Motzi’. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has been the recipient of many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, induction into Cincinnati’s American Classical Music Hall of Fame, and four honorary doctorates.

Born in Mannheim, Germany, in 1928, Samuel Hans Adler grew up the son of the esteemed cantor and liturgical composer Hugo Chaim Adler (1894-1955), then head cantor of Mannheim’s Central Synagogue. Attending a segregated Jewish school and enduring the indignities of Jewish life in Nazi Germany, Adler studied violin and began composing at a young age. Following the Kristallnacht, he and his family managed to escape to America, where his father found work as a cantor for Temple Emanuel in Worcester, Massachusetts. While still in high school, he studied harmony, counterpoint, and analysis in nearby Boston with Herbert Fromm, a notable German refugee musician and a friend of the Adler family.

Adler continued his musical education, concentrating in violin performance, at Boston University, where he studied composition with Hugo Norden (1946-1948); and then pursued the master’s degree in music at Harvard (1948-1950), where he studied composition with four luminaries: Walter Piston, Paul Hindemith, Randall Thompson, and Irving Fine. At the encouragement of Fine, he also spent two summers (1949, 1950) working with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood, where he further refined his conducting skills under the tutelage of Serge Koussevitzky. Drafted into military service, Adler spent two years (December 1950 to December 1952) with the US Army in occupied Germany, where he founded and led the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra (disbanded in 1962), giving numerous concerts of European and American orchestral works throughout 1952.

On his return to the States in 1953, Adler moved to Dallas to become Music Director at Temple Emanu-El, a large Reform Jewish synagogue. In addition to his synagogal work, during his near fifteen years in Texas (1953-1966), Adler served the Dallas community in numerous other ways, including organizing the Dallas Chorale, conducting the Dallas Lyric Theater, writing scores for the Dallas Theater Company, and teaching at the Hockaday School and eventually the University of North Texas in nearby Denton. While in Dallas, he also established a close relationship with the conductor of the Dallas Symphony, Walter Hendl, who championed his work.

In 1966, Adler moved with his wife and two daughters to Rochester, New York, to join the faculty of the Eastman School of Music, whose composition department he chaired from 1973 until leaving the school in 1995. During his years at Eastman, in addition to producing a wealth of scores, he published three textbooks: Anthology for the Teaching of Choral Conducting (1971), Sight Singing (1979), and the widely used Study of Orchestration (1982), which has been translated into eight languages.

In 1997, now married to his second wife, conductor Emily Freeman Brown, he joined the Juilliard faculty, where he worked until 2016. During these later years, he taught elsewhere as well, in particular, summer sessions at Bowdoin College and Berlin’s Free University. By the time of his retirement from Juilliard, he had supervised the education of dozens of composers, including Julia Adolphe, Claude Baker, Don Freund, Fabien Lévy, Nico Muhly, Paola Prestini, Kevin Puts, Elena Mendoza, Christopher Theofanidis, Michael Torke, Fisher Tull, Dan Welcher, and Ye Xiaogang.

Soon after moving to Dallas in 1953, Adler won a competition sponsored by the Dallas Symphony, which earned him $1,000 and, in the event, the chance to write something for the orchestra. Having planned to write a symphony after his discharge from the military, Adler started such a piece in earnest in May and completed it in September. The Dallas Symphony premiered this Symphony No 1 on the campus of Southern Methodist University on 7 December 1953, to a warm critical and audience reception.

At the time Adler undertook this venture, the American symphony, as a genre, was in full bloom, with notable contributions over the previous decades by Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Paul Creston, David Diamond, Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, Vincent Persichetti, Walter Piston, William Schuman, Roger Sessions, Randall Thompson, and Virgil Thomson, among many others. Serge Koussevitzky, the dynamic Russian-American conductor of the Boston Symphony from 1924 to 1949, had done more than anyone else to nurture these symphonists, so Adler, growing up in Worcester and attending school in Boston, for some time had had first-hand exposure to this efflorescence (in addition to the thrill of hearing Koussevitzky introduce the new work of European masters, including the 1944 world premiere of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra). Moreover, during his high school years, even while his teacher Fromm introduced him to such composers as Hindemith and Stravinsky, Adler would get together with like-minded friends and listen multiple times to recordings, score in hand, of the orchestral and chamber works of this entire school of American composers. As conductor with the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra, he himself championed a number of America’s older statesmen, in particular, Piston’s Symphony No 2, which became one of the ensemble’s signature works.

Adler’s Symphony No 1, which puts forth a songful first movement in sonata form (‘Gently moving’), a somber middle movement in ternary form (‘Very slowly’), and a festive rondo finale (‘Vigorous and very rhythmic’), reveals a composer fully immersed in and at home with this tradition. He himself singled out, in retrospect, the work’s indebtedness to Piston, Copland, and Hindemith, the last named of whom could be said to be, along with Stravinsky, a principal godfather to this American school. One can hear brassy splashes in the outer movements reminiscent of Copland’s El salón México and so-called western ballets, and something of that same composer’s understated eloquence in the slow movement’s middle section. One can similarly discern echoes of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler in the work’s general harmonic palette, especially in the wan loveliness of the middle movement. At the same time, Adler’s evolving style made room, too, for his long involvement with Reform Judaic liturgical music, as suggested especially by the slow movement.

But the influence of Piston would seem to stand paramount, especially that composer’s Symphonies Nos 2 and 4. During these years, Piston, who enjoyed a notable reputation as a teacher (his students at Harvard including, in addition to Adler, the likes of Elliott Carter, Arthur Berger, Irving Fine, Harold Shapero, and Leonard Bernstein), cut a commanding figure as a composer as well, probably the time’s most respected symphonist. Even so, few approximated his achievement as closely as Adler in this Symphony No 1—from the clipped forms and the vibrant counterpoint to the work’s colourful orchestral play between the wind, brass, and string choirs, its delicate touches of harp and percussion, and its busy but lucid tuttis. Adler personally found Piston aloof; he never warmed to him as he did Copland, nor was he wowed by him as he was Hindemith. But something about Piston’s work—perhaps its own mediation between the American vernacular and the great European tradition—apparently helped guide his development during these early years.

Adler wrote his Symphony No 2 for Walter Hendl and the Dallas Symphony in the wake of the death of his father in late 1955. Completing the work at the MacDowell Colony in July 1957, and dedicating the piece ‘to the blessed memory of my beloved father’, Adler apparently intended the Symphony, at least in part, as a memorial tribute, even using a melody from the ‘Akedah’ movement of Hugo Chaim’s Three Pieces for violin and piano as a main theme. The ‘Akedah’, or ‘binding’, refers to the biblical story in which Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son Isaac, a story whose themes of a father’s dedication to God and love for his son would have special resonance to the bereaved composer in this context, and a tale to which Adler returned ten years later for his oratorio, The Binding (1967). Hugo Chaim himself had written an ‘Akedah’ oratorio set for performance in Stuttgart in 1938, but at the last minute Nazi storm troopers suppressed the premiere of the work, which ultimately never received an airing.

The work’s indebtedness to Hugo Chaim goes deeper than the use of one of his melodies. In his memoir, Samuel Adler writes: ‘My father was a man of the greatest resilience. Nothing, not the First World War, changing positions, immigration, a completely new environment, or a terrible illness, could deter him. While many immigrants to America from Central Europe had great difficulty assimilating into the new country, my father became an American patriot and made a decision to thrive in his newly found freedom.’ Some of Hugo Chaim’s determination and optimism clearly can be heard in this symphonic tribute to his memory.

Successfully introduced by Hendl and the Dallas Symphony at the city’s State Fair Music Hall on 24 February 1957, the Symphony No 2 resembles its predecessor in having three movements—‘Quite slowly – Fast’, ‘Slowly’, and ‘Fast and triumphant’—that put forth a dramatic movement in sonata form, a somber slow movement in ternary form, and a joyous rondo finale. But the work manifests a more marked individual stylistic profile, its debts to Piston, Copland, and Hindemith still palpable, but more muted. The piece also has greater organic tautness, thanks in part to the generative use of the Hugo Chaim Adler melody, which first appears in the solo cello in the slow introduction, and which, after determining much of the work’s melodic language, returns rather verbatim, cyclic style, near the end of the finale. Indeed, the sweep of particularly the first movement, including the way the slow introduction seamlessly moves into fast movement proper, recalls the symphonic work of Roy Harris and his student William Schuman perhaps more than the other aforementioned masters, thereby pointing ahead to the more romantic spirit of Adler’s later work.

Adler composed the first of his three piano concertos mostly during the first half of 1983 on a commission from a former student, pianist-composer Bradford Gowen, with funds from the International American Music Competition. A frequent guest soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra, Gowen requested the work specifically to play with the orchestra. He did so with the blessings of the orchestra’s Director, Mstislav Rostropovich, although he premiered the work with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center on 3 January 1985, under the baton of the Korean pianist-conductor Myung-Whun Chung.

Adler wrote the concerto after the death in 1982 of his mother, Selma, whom he described in his memoir as ‘beloved of all who met her’. And as with the Symphony No 2, he memorialized his loss by way of a quoted tune—here a lullaby, composed by his father, that his mother had sung to him as a child. Adler recalled: ‘This melody was so pervasive in my musical conscious (while writing the concerto) that I decided to incorporate it as the main theme of the second movement.’ The tune, harmonized and varied in Adler’s distinctive fashion, can be heard shortly after the entrance of the solo pianist in the slow movement.

The concerto has three movements: ‘Slowly and very free – Very fast’, ‘Very slowly’, and ‘Hard driving’. Representative of Adler’s mature style, in contrast to the two early symphonies, the work reflects certain modernist trends that to varying degrees began to occupy him in the 1960s and 1970s: twelve-tone writing, aleatoric notation, and, indirectly, electronic music. Beginning in the late 1960s, Adler increasingly made use of the twelve-tone method, at least for many of his more ambitious instrumental compositions, but he never employed the technique strictly, and always balanced tonal and non-tonal elements in his work. Indeed, he criticized the music of Anton Webern and certain pieces of Arnold Schoenberg in the sense that ‘unrelenting non-tonality is devastating to the listener’. Concurrently with this assimilation of twelve-tone thinking, he started incorporating aleatoric techniques, a development furthered by his interest in and friendship with the Polish composers Witold Lutosławski and Krzysztof Penderecki. And although he never composed electronic music, electronic sounds similarly began to shape his color palette in sundry ways.

Such influences manifest themselves in the course of the Concerto for piano and orchestra No 1: twelve-tone writing in the dazzlingly virtuosic passage work for the soloist; aleatoric notation in the pianist’s solo introduction to the first movement; and electronic-inspired sounds in the high and sustained woodwind cluster, triple pianissimo, that accompanies the pianist’s rendition of the lullaby theme near the end of the slow movement. But such techniques, hardly ends in themselves, serve the composer’s principal intent in writing a nostalgic and elegiac slow movement book-ended by, as he himself remarked in reference to the first movement, two ‘extremely vigorous and rambunctious’ outer movements.

In his later years especially, Adler established particularly close ties with German musical life, including writing two works for the Mannheim National Theater Orchestra, both represented in this collection: the Concerto for woodwind quintet and orchestra ‘Shir HaMa’alot’ (1991) and the dance suite for large orchestra Man lebt nur einmal (2004).

The former work came about as the result of a concerto competition held by the Mannheim Orchestra and won by a German woodwind quintet recently founded, the Ma’alot Quintett, their name (meaning ‘ascent’ in Hebrew) derived from a large outdoor sculpure in Cologne by the Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan. Faced with the need for a concerto in which to feature the quintet, an ensemble highly skilled in both traditional and contemporary music, the Musical Academy of the Mannheim National Theater Orchestra commissioned Adler to write just such a piece. Scored for woodwind quintet, brass, percussion, and strings, the concerto was premiered on 1 June 1992, with the Ma’alot Quintett and the orchestra under the baton of the Spanish conductor Miguel Gómez-Martínez.

Struck by the coincidence of the quintet’s name with the traditional Jewish prayer recited after meals, Shir HaMa’alot (‘Song of Ascent’), and remembering in particular the childhood Sabbath dinners shared by his family in those troubled early years in Mannheim, Adler decided to title his concerto accordingly. However, the work has less to do with Jewish liturgical music or memories of Mannheim than with the general notion of ascent, and in particular, writes the composer, the prevailing ‘spirit of humankind’ that survives such ‘dark times’ as that of the Third Reich.

Somewhat in the spirit of a jazz concerto grosso, the first movement, ‘Fast, rhythmic, and very energetic’, aims to capture, in the composer’s words, ‘the often breathlessness of modern life’. It does so with a vigor, dynamism, and formal finesse not unlike the sort practiced by Hindemith in the 1920s, pointing to the continued impact of Adler’s early neoclassical orientation, even if extended in new coloristic and rhythmic directions. The second movement, ‘Slowly and very expressively’, offers contrasting repose, at least in its warmly lyrical sections, which Adler has described in amorous terms, because the movement contains too a lively and whimsical middle section—with both the movement’s slow and fast music in a Coplandesque vein, again pointing to continuities. The finale returns to the restiveness of the first movement, here all the more driving in its perpetual motion, notwithstanding some episodes that occasionally turn dancelike. In the course of all three movements, quickly changing meters—a technique that came to characterize Adler’s later music—enliven the music’s rhythmic vitality.

Adler’s second commission from the Mannheim National Theater Orchestra came with the request that he write a dance suite, this in light of the orchestra’s history as one of the premiere ensembles of the eighteenth century, during which time divertimentos, serenades, and other suites formed a conspicuous part of their repertoire. Adler duly wrote a five-movement suite, the individual movements titled ‘Rumble’, ‘Schleier-Walzer’ (‘Veiled Waltz’), ‘Erratische Rumba’ (‘Erratic Rumba’), ‘Pavane’, and ‘Tarantella’. Adler derived the work’s title, Man lebt nur einmal (‘One lives but once’), from one of the favorite expressions of his mother, who loved to dance. The Mannheim National Orchestra premiered the work on 1 February 2005, under the direction of Peter Sommer.

‘Rumble’, the one movement not a dance per se, pays homage to the ‘Rumble’ from Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway musical West Side Story, music that in its original context underscored a street gang fight and that Bernstein used for his own suite, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Adler’s music, lighter in tone than Bernstein’s, and described by the composer as ‘a virtuoso exercise of an endlessly whirling dance fury’, juxtaposes perpetual motion and jig-like gestures, along with, briefly, more lyrical moments. In the course of the second movement, ‘Schleier-Walzer’, played very softly from beginning to end ‘as if’, writes Adler, ‘one would be watching people dancing a waltz through a veil’, duple and other meters gently disturb this mysterious, gauzy movement’s waltz-like flow. Greater complexities abound in the ‘Erratische Rumba’, especially in the outer sections, with its boisterous and Coplandesque alternation of five, seven, and other meters, and its quicksilver changes of key—a highly personal take on the Cuban rumba. This same movement’s more stable, somewhat antique sounding middle section, introduced by the English horn, offers some calm before the return of the hectic opening music, which now incorporates the English horn melody as well.

The slow, pastoral ‘Pavane’, taking its cue from that dance’s long history, one that reaches back to the Renaissance, unfolds a long line delicately scored, allowing rich solo opportunities for clarinet, oboe, solo violin, flute, English horn, and French horn. The suite concludes with a ‘Tarantella’, a popular and fast Italian dance that derived its name from the wild dancing that supposedly offered a cure from a poisonous tarantula bite. Keeping largely to the dance’s traditional meter of six, Adler characteristically keeps the music driving at full tilt right up to its explosive ending.

In 2012, Adler finally wrote a concerto for his own instrument, the violin, after penning numerous concertos for other instruments, although he had written a Rhapsody for violin and orchestra for violinist Jack Glatzer in 1961 (a work withdrawn after a few performances) and a concerto for viola, Adler’s other main instrument, for Randolph Kelly in 1999.

The Concerto for violin and orchestra came about as the result of a commission by the Rotary Club of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Supporters of Tulsa’s International Crescendo Music Competition for young artists, the Rotary Club requested from Adler a concerto that would feature the 2010 winner of the competition, the Korean-born violinist Siwoo Kim, to perform with the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra. Kim premiered the piece on 7 September 2013, with the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra led by Philip Mann.

In the dramatic first movement, ‘Vigorous’, the violin dominates the conversation, but sometimes engages in amiable exchanges with the orchestra. The composer felt, in his own words, that this movement ‘should picture my happiness in having performed on the violin all my life’. As a whole, for all its tension and technical difficulties, the movement draws largely on the violin’s lyrical potential. Lyricism prevails even more strongly in the middle movement, ‘Slowly and expressively’; its musical language, although of a piece with the first movement, is less dissonant. Adler intended this relatively short movement ‘to give the feeling of the beauty of nature, the innocence of childhood, and the expression of calmness, which can come from hearing music’.

The solo cadenza that leads directly into the finale returns to the twelve-tonish angularities of the first movement, although the finale proper is distinctively dancelike and joyous in mood, even while incorporating ideas put forth earlier in the work. Once again, the violin remains the star of the proceedings, with lots of scope for virtuosic bravura, all leading to a rousing conclusion.

Howard Pollack © 2017

In their own ways, each of the pieces on these recordings demonstrates Samuel Adler’s boundless energy and joie de vivre, as well as his commitment to friends, community, and faith. The Concerto for guitar and orchestra (1994) was commissioned by three of his guitar-playing friends: Nicholas Goluses, Adam Holzman, and Stephen Robinson. Adler recalls in his autobiography that ‘they wanted to have a concerto that they could perform with college orchestras since it is difficult for solo guitarists to get solo appearances with major orchestras’. Having premiered the piece in Abilene, Texas, Adler made a second version for guitar and band ‘in order to get more performances’. The first performance of this new version was given by the Eastman Wind Ensemble with Nicholas Goluses as soloist. According to the composer, the three movements try ‘to maintain a constant dialog’ between the soloist and the ensemble. In the outer movements, the music drives relentlessly forward; in the middle movement, it changes mood, with the guitar part often sounding improvisatory. The overall effect of the concerto is striking: the intricate way in which the composer weaves together the different strands of counterpoint is truly virtuosic.

Adler completed Into the radiant boundaries of light in 1993, towards the end of his thirty-year tenure as Professor of Composition at the Eastman School of Music (1966-1995). Himself a trained string player, Adler wrote the piece for his colleagues John Graham (viola) and Nicholas Goluses (guitar). The duet is a wonderful example of what Jürgen Thym has referred to as Adler’s ‘infectious optimism and life-affirming spirit’. The work’s title is a line from Rolfe Humphries’ translation of the didactic poem On the nature of things by the Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus (c99BC-c55BC). The original poem opens with a hymn to Venus and the defense of pleasure in which Lucretius focuses on the nature of creation and on the fact that pleasure, though real and desirable, seldom comes without cost: painlessness is not a virtue but something to energize us. In Adler’s case, creativity is something that he ‘lends … to the needs of his fellow human beings: performers, conductors, friends’. Since the viola and guitar are both ‘mellow instruments’, Adler decided to treat both instruments equally, giving each one the same material throughout. The results are stunning: Adler shows us that the viola and the guitar are both capable of creating a spectacular range of timbres and textures that harmonize beautifully with one another.

Adler’s sense of faith and his own life experiences clearly had an impact on his piece Ports of call (1992). Commissioned by the Tiento Trio, Ports of call responds to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. It is a topic that was clearly very close to his heart: ‘I’m a survivor, you see, and I’m excited about life. I feel while there is a great deal of horror in life, basically we can make it good, so therefore I try to say this in music’. In fact, Adler was just eleven when his family fled Germany for the United States in 1939: his father became the cantor of the Temple Emanuel in Worcester, Massachusetts and he became the youthful conductor of the Temple choir. Ports of call recreates Adler’s impressions of five Mediterranean cities where the Jewish refugees eventually settled and it even uses music of the period to give it a local flavor. The scoring for two violins and guitar is perfect at conveying the unique sounds and colors of each locale: his music for ‘Marseille’ captures the exuberance of France’s largest port; for ‘Alexandria’, the contemplative mood of the city’s ancient past; ‘Salonika’ (Thessaloniki) conjures up the wild spirit of the Macedonian city: for ‘Haifa’, the serene beauty of the Bahá’í Gardens and Shrine of the Báb; and for ‘Valencia’, the glittering atmosphere and vibrant tones of Adler’s final destination.

Five choral scherzi is an appropriate summation of Adler’s aspirations as a composer. Completed in 2008, the piece is scored for chorus, viola and guitar, and was first performed by the Eastman Chorale, under the direction of William Weinert in Rochester, New York, on 13 February 2009, with Brett Deubner (viola) and Christopher Kenniff (guitar). The piece is one of over a hundred works that Adler has composed for chorus: it underscores both his childhood experiences conducting choirs in Temple and his profound love of literature, especially poetry. As he remarked: ‘I try to choose the subjects that mean a great deal to me, and words mean a great deal to me. I read a lot of poetry; I read a lot of literature; that turns me on a great deal. When somebody asks me to write songs or set a text, I always have lots of texts in the storehouse.’ The texts, as the work’s title suggests, are light and playful, and, except for that of the anonymous second song ‘Sucking cider through a straw’, were written by some of poetry’s great humorists: John Updike (‘V B Nimble, V B Quick’); Thomas Hood (‘No!’); Dorothy Parker (‘The choice’); and Hilaire Belloc (‘Tarantella’). The poems’ clever use of rhyme, rhythm, repetition, and word play allow Adler to show off his skills at text setting. Belloc’s ‘Tarantella’ is particularly noteworthy in this regard: by capturing the infectious energy of this Spanish dance, it reminds us of Adler’s last Port of call, ‘Valencia’.

At the end of his autobiography, Adler offers some fascinating reflections about his life and his music. A couple of them seem especially relevant to this album. First is Adler’s desire to be ‘a bridge builder’ in ‘situations where reconciliation or any other form of understanding is required’. These recordings demonstrates just how much he tries to build bridges between performers and composers, and between composers and audiences. Elsewhere, he has suggested that music is a ‘love affair’ between each group: ‘this love affair is a tripartite thing’. Second is Adler’s belief that through hard work and a sense of purpose, it is possible to make the world a better place. He credits this outlook on life in part to the ‘Tikkun Olam’, the principle of healing or restoring the world, which his father taught him as a child. He also cites a poem by British poet Laurence Binyon entitled ‘Nothing is enough’. This short text, which Adler set in his Five choral poems (1954), encourages us all to face every situation with complete determination and effort. Echoing Binyon’s text, Adler has declared: ‘I believe that only a life that declares “Nothing enough till your all is spent” is worth living’.

Matthew Brown © 2017

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