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?

2013: A Ligeti Odyssey

If you weren’t in an ethereal, relaxed place before, you might be now. This is Lux Aeterna by Gyorgy Ligeti (like “lickety-split”), and it is a masterpiece of Contemporary music, pushing the boundaries further than they had been pushed before. For instance, I am sure you have noticed that most music has a beat, something to tap your foot to. Well, this piece, as you can hear, does not have a beat. There is no discernible rhythm. Ligeti wrote very difficult, complicated music to create this effortless effect. I am not going to go too much into specifics on this because 1) It is really boring and technical and 2) I am not a music scholar and thus find some of the theory hard to understand. Yes, she is fallible!

So I will write more about the “why” as opposed to the “how”. Why did Ligeti create music that sounded like this? Why is there no evident rhythm or beat? Why does the piece give me a feeling of calm mixed with unease?

The Lux Aeterna is taken from the Catholic Reqiuem mass. (The Mozart Requiem we discussed also had a Lux Aeterna movement, which was composed posthumously.) Roughly translated, it means:

Lux Aeterna, luceat , eis, Domine,
Cum sanctis tuis in aeternum
quia pius es.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

May eternal light shine upon them, O Lord,
With the Saints in eternity,
Because you are good.
Grant eternal rest unto them, O Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon them.

Some of you may know the term Gregorian chant, and you may have a vague image in your mind of old guys in robes singing simple music that echoes a lot. Honestly, that pretty much does some up Gregorian chant. Back when writing music down was still a new and scary idea, Pope Gregory decided to have all of the sacred music consolidated, leading to a mass influx of chants from all over Europe. These were then taught in cathedral all over, and soon everyone in the Catholic church knew these chants and could sing them accurately. It helped that the music was simple, and there was nothing to cloud understanding, like harmony or tricky rhythm. Believe it or not, Ligeti’s Lux Aeternum has strong ties to its Gregorian heritage. On an odyssey into history we go!

This is the Gregorian chant Lux Aeterna. Notice that it is just one melody, no accompaniment, no harmony. One simple, straight tone (no vibrato) melody. How on earth did THIS simple melody become that, frankly, WEIRD piece of music at the top. Well, it took about 1000 years to get there. We should be able to zip through this pretty quickly, though. Let’s go straight on to sacred music of the Renaissance.

This is Josquin de Prez’s Ave Maria, a sacred canon. Of course, one of the first things you will (hopefully) notice is that all of the voice parts are singing different words at different times. You then might notice that they are actually copying each other but coming in later or earlier than each other. (This is sort of like an early fugue, isn’t it?) The music here takes precedence over the words, which are often muddled by the different singers all singing something different and by the melisma (long vocal passage on one syllable). This is called canon, and it is very indicative of the Renaissance (pre-Palestrina). It is the combination of these two very early styles of composition that give us the texture we find in Ligeti’s Lux Aeternum. Combined with a modern harmonic and melodic sensibility (ie- purposefully none whatsoever), Ligeti managed to make something sound familiar and comforting while simultaneously strange and foreign.

Let’s look at that Gregorian chant again. It’s spare and beautiful in its own succinct, soft-spoken way. Now, imagine slowing it WAY down- I mean, painfully slow. Would that not be the dullest piece of music ever? Not if you’re Ligeti. He wanted that simplicity of line, and it needed to feel like it would go on forever, hence the title “Eternal Light.” The best way to do that, he thought was to do away with traditional harmony. Each section of the 16, yes 16!, section choir would have their own specific melody, which operated quite independently from the rest of the group. These were used to create cluster chords (a whole lot of notes really close together on the piano and played at the same time), which should sound horrible (and sometimes it does), but in this case, the music is beautiful and haunting.

Ah, but then comes the tricky part. This piece is meant to be textural. The parts in the choir must operate independently and still create a seamless and ever flowing texture. Here we find evolved remnants of the canon. Almost never, except on very important words in the piece, do the voices enter at the same time, and they even show some slight mimicry of other voice parts. The texture, however, is so deep and spellbinding that it is incredibly difficult to hear similar beat patterns or note repetitions. This is absolutely on purpose. In order to accomplish this, Ligeti wrote music that was not technically what we would call “accurate.” He would write too many beats for one voice and not enough for another. The choir parts had very specific entrances in the piece, but very little way to actually figure them out. They had to FEEL those entrances. The purposefully inaccurate music leads to the creation of a living organism as the choir is forced, all at once, to completely ignore each other and focus on their own line AND feel their entrances within the texture of the sound. There is no clear harmony. There is no clear melody. There is only the sound and the lack of it.

What colors do we hear? When is the texture rich? When is it light? Does the texture paint the words (like that held high note in the soprano part on the word luceat or “shine”)?

Why is it cool to know about Gyorgy Ligeti? Because he is one of the most influential composers in the history of cinema. In1968, Stanley Kubrick released the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The movie featured lots of famous classical pieces such as the Blue Danube Waltz and Also Sprach Zarathustra, by Johann and Richard Strauss, respectively. When he got to the sections that were, well, weird, he needed music to capture that essence, and he found it in Gyorgy Ligeti’s music. Featured in the film are Ligeti’s compositions Lux Aeterna, Atmospheres, Requiem, and Aventures. They had that perfect otherworldly quality that Kubrick was looking for.

There was only one problem. Kubrick never actually asked Ligeti for permission to use his music. He had no idea that his music was featured in the film until he started to receive congratulations for it. Moreover, Kubrik had digitally altered the music as well! Gyorgy Ligeti took Stanley Kubrick to court and settled for an indeterminate amount of money. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Or, at least, a financially viable partnership. Since then, Ligeti allowed use of his music to Kubrik for the films The Shining and Eyes Wide shut. (However, Gyorgy Ligeti remains uncredited in most of Stanley Kubrik’s films.)

The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams

This Lark Ascending: a Romance for Violin and Orchestra by Ralph (pronounced Rafe, like Ralph Fiennes) Vaughan Williams is an astounding achievement. Especially in Britain, this piece has become one of the most popular of this generation, often topping classical music charts (yes, there are classical music charts). Interestingly, The Lark Ascending is not a new piece. It’s been around since the 1920’s. These last ten years or so, it seems Vaughan Williams’ music is experiencing its own little Renaissance, and thank goodness for that because The Lark Ascending may very well be my favorite instrumental piece.

Ralph Vaughan Williams is a quintessential Contemporary composer. His music borrows from myriad avenues such as previous classical works, folk tunes, world music, literature, anything he can get his hands on. This smorgasbord approach to music composition is indicative of the Contemporary period of music. The Contemporary period is certainly marked by, and possibly caused by, the development of recording technology. With music of all shapes and sizes at their fingertips, composers were given a playground of sounds to explore. This particular piece covers pretty much every aspect that makes Contemporary music great.

So what makes this piece special? Is it beautiful? What makes it beautiful? What emotions are being portrayed? Does this piece paint a picture for you? What of?

Upon first listening to this music, you may think to yourself, this sounds kind of… Asian? To that I say, good catch. You’ve got a musical ear! That’s because a large portion of this piece is composed using a pentatonic scale. (There she goes using big music words again.) Pentatonic scales are made up of five notes. Have you ever noticed that if you plink out a tune on a piano using nothing but the black keys, it sounds like Asian music? (Just to be clear, when I say “Asian music”, I am only referring to those Asian countries that use pentatonic scales, like China and Japan. Countries like the Philippines and India have their own scales.) That is because there are five black keys for every seven white keys. The white keys make up our diatonic scale. The black keys make up the pentatonic scale. (For musician readers, I am, of course, referring to the C major scale.) Like the Debussy piece we covered, this different scale is very effectively used to make us forget about the tonic (home base).

As the violin, representing the lark, plays notes from the pentatonic scale, the orchestra accompanies, often using our own diatonic scale. This gives us the sense that the violin is flying above them. By never letting the violin touch home base, the lark never has to touch the ground. The orchestra, I think, begins as the wind, the breeze which the lark caches with ease. It effortlessly rides the calm current, relishing in the freedom of living above gravity, all the while singing joyfully.

The title The Lark Ascending: a Romance for Violin and Orchestra refers to the love the skylark holds for his home. In this case, the home is England. After the otherworldly, freeing melody of the skylark’s song, the orchestra changes the song at around 6:00, offering up a simple English folk tune. Now we have a setting. The lark is no longer just soaring on the wind but exploring the gorgeous English countryside. You see the sprawling valleys, and the lark soars effortlessly above them. The orchestra and violin begin to mimic each other, at one with another. The exhilaration of opening motif is now abandoned for a calmer, sweeter love song, which the countryside and the bird sing back and forth. This ends with the lark itself singing the English folk tune and the orchestra accompanying, and they join together in a solemn and meditative harmony. The flight begins again, this time calm and composed. At 13:00, the lark’s song begins again, sweet and supple, without the orchestra accompaniment. The lark’s song fills the void of empty quiet and slowly fades to silence.

Ralph Vaughan Williams included a portion of a poem by George Meredith with this piece.

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

So, did Vaughan Williams capture these words? Can we hear the sound of the lark’s delicate song, the chirrups and whistles? Do we see the valley, quietly enfolding the lark like a golden cup? I think so.

P.S.- While this version of the music is gorgeous in its own right, it’s not actually my favorite recording. David Nolan certainly plays a lovely melody, but I feel the tempo is a rushed and the dynamics too simple. I was, unfortunately, unable to find a Nigel Kennedy version of The Lark Ascending that was not poor quality or split into separate sections. For this, I apologize. If this piece moved you, I urge you to find Nigel Kennedy’s recording of The Lark Ascending. The subtlety and beauty is beyond compare.