Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber

When I was about twelve years old, my older brother, who, being two and a half years older than me, was infinitely more cultured and awe-inspiring, advised me to listen to a particular piece of classical music called “Adagio for Strings.” While my parents were very musically talented, we were raised much more in the strain of Broadway hits than instrumental classical compositions. After all, what is the point of listening to music with no words? As far as I know, “Adagio for Strings” is the first piece of classical music I listened to knowingly and without the visual aid of films like Fantasia. I can still see myself, sequestered in my room, curled up on the floor next to my bed with my head resting on my knees as I closed my eyes and let the sound of violins, violas, and cellos wash over me. It sounded like pouring rain, roaring fire, soaring winds, and it scoured me. Twelve year old Bethany cried the first time she heard “Adagio for Strings.” She sat in her room, alone, and sobbed as nameless emotions filled her eyes. There was something intangible and bleak in this music, something so utterly real that she had never experienced before, and it was frightening and oh so beautiful. This music SAID something, and to this day, I am not sure I understand what it is trying to tell me because each time I hear it, I find something new to hold onto, a small resolution of a chord, or a subtle viola underscoring the violins, and I find a new meaning in it. I truly believe that “Adagio for Strings” changed the course of my life and is one of the pieces that molded me into the musician I am today. So, without any further ado, here is “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber.

For those of you who are movie buffs, you might recognize this piece right away as it was used to great effect in Platoon. However, I am going to ask you to please not think about that iconic scene and let the music paint something else for you instead. What are the emotions in this piece? Do you hear devastation, longing, loss, joy, pain, fear, love? Do you see images? Scenes? Do you see people or places?

Like the Ligeti we discussed before, this piece has a feeling of timelessness, of moving and swaying and surging without discernible beats. Of course, Barber did this on purpose by writing the piece in many different time signatures. This means he constantly changed where the downbeat fell. What is a downbeat? It is the first, most prominent, often loudest, beat in a rhythm. In 4/4 time, in which most Western music is written, the beats go like this: strongest, weak, strong, weak. The strongest beat, the first one, is the downbeat. For example, if we sing “Pop Goes the Weasel,” we will put the most emphasis on these words: ALL around the MULberry bush, the MONkey chased to WEAsel. “All” and “Mon” from “Monkey” are the downbeats.

In this piece, Barber chose to mask that downbeat by changing it every time. Instead of having the downbeat every 4 beats, he would change it to every 3 or every 5, masking where one line ended and the next began. This approach to composition is a dead giveaway that Barber is a Contemporary composer. Indeed, this piece was composed in 1936, a good 200 years after the great compositions of Mozart and Beethoven.

We have already covered one Contemporary composer on this blog, Georgy Ligeti, but Samuel Barber’s masterpiece differs in one very big way: he wrote texturally and melodically. While Ligeti was much more concerned about composing flowing, hauntingly beautiful harmonies, there was no melody, nothing you could hum along to. Barber’s Adagio, on the other hand, is something where you can pick out a discernible line as the melody of the piece, usually played by the highest instrument, the violins. This gives us something we can grasp. We hold onto that violin line as it weaves us through a dynamic, changing texture of sound and color. We get the feeling that the texture only changes as the violins react to it. At 1:40, the violas pick up the melody for a moment, echoing in their low, sorrowful voice, the melody of the violins, and for a few sweet moments, they play together, a tender duet. The texture thins again, and this time, it is the violas that have the melody. They rise and fall, and blend back again with the violins, echoing, singing to one another, fall back again, as if shy. Building, receding, building, receding- like a wave crashing into a mountain, desperately clawing for the summit.

At 5:00, the violins pick up the melody again, and this time they are more powerful, more sure. The violas climb. The cellos climb. There is a sense of urgency now, and the strings rise to a glorious fever pitch as they reach the top of the mountain. Up until now, the whole piece piece has been in a minor (AKA sad) key, but suddenly, a glorious major chord sweeps across a devastatingly beautiful sun. It can only be the sound of elation, of God, of the otherworldly beauty of our own world.

We begin the slow descent, and we hear the same melody that so subtly built at the beginning of the piece, but it feels different now. Has the music changed, or have we?