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?

Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and Fantasia…insky

So, first of all, this is NOT Stravinsky. That’s right. I tricked you. THIS is Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky. (I will give you a cookie if you can pronounce it correctly.) I posted this video to make a point. Most of us have, at some point, watched the Disney classic Fantasia. Some lucky ducks (like this girl) grew up on it, watching it over and over again. I have found over the years that this particular piece made quite an impression on many a young child. Some still claim to have nightmares from this sequence. The reason I posted this video on a post about Stravinsky is simple: I am NOT one of those people. Night on Bald Mountain never bothered me one bit. I thought the music was interesting, and the were visuals fun and stimulating. As a young child, I knew this was all fantasy and reveled in how well the music matched the dancing images onscreen. The Rite of Spring sequence, however, still haunts me.

Not sure which one the Rite of Spring is? That’s probably because the images have absolutely nothing to do with spring. No, the animators went with dinosaurs murdering each other instead. Why? Well, let’s take a look.

This is a short excerpt from the Rite of Spring in Fantasia. Remember it now? The music accompanies the images perfectly, but one must admit that for a sequence entitled Rite of Spring, there is not much to do with spring, but a whole lot to do with giant, ancient, angry lizards. “But Bethany,” you say, “dinosaurs are AWESOME!” Yes, they are. They totally are. And dinosaurs violently beating the hell out of each other is something I would usually enjoy (because I like gratuitous violence as much as the next person, often more so). So what is the problem?

The problem is the music itself. As a child, I found the music to be literally frightening. The jarring, repetitive rhythms; the confusing melodies; the tangled, garbled, incomprehensible harmonies- it was just too much. In fact, while the images of dinosaurs fighting and then slowly going extinct are probably the most disturbing, I was just as horrified by the shots of the lava bursting forth from a volcano. To this day, I find the sequence almost impossible to sit through because I associate it with confusion and fear.

Well, my musical tastes have changed a lot over the years, and I enjoy listening to a wide array of music, including wonderful composers like Stravinsky, Berg, and even Shoenberg on occasion. The Rite of Spring, however, still gives me the heebie jeebies. So what is it about this piece in particular. Why does one of the most celebrated pieces of classical music haunt me so intently? Before we go into further discussion on this, here is the whole piece so that you can hear it for yourself.

Did you know that this piece is actually a BALLET? Can you imagine? We are used to seeing ballets like The Nutcracker or maybe Swan Lake. Ballets are supposed to have lovely dancers making gorgeous lines with their bodies to beautiful music. Well, not in Russia in the 1910’s. Like all composers during this time, Stravinsky was searching for his own unique voice. His pieces differ greatly from one to the next. During his lifetime, Stravinsky made the leap from mostly tonal to almost complete atonality and back again, reverting to the style of Mozart and other classical composers. The Rite of Spring falls smack dab in the middle of his experimentation with atonality.

What exactly is atonality? Well, we know what tonal means, right? That’s music with a “home base.” So atonality is the opposite. The music does not follow specific patterns that our ears are used to hearing, and try as we might (and, trust me, your ears will try), we cannot find a solid Do to cling to. Unlike other composers of the time, Stravinsky wasn’t composing atonal music for the sake of creating atonal music (*cough cough* Webern *cough*). With this particular piece, he was trying to capture something primal, and of course, primal music did not follow the diatonic scale to which we are all accustomed.

Interestingly, while a majority of this piece operates in utter dissonance (unpleasant sound), separating the different lines of music actually reveals that there may be some kind of tonality after all, at least in some sections. For instance, from 3:30 to 4:30, you can hear various melodies float in and out of the texture. The piccolos play in a completely different key from the bassoons, who play in a completely different key from the horns. It’s like they are all performing their own little songs and don’t realize that they are supposed to be playing together. This is completely on purpose, and it is called polytonality. So, if tonal means there is a home base, then polytonal means that there are lots of home bases. Listen again; see if you can separate the parts. Some of those tunes are actually quite pretty. The texture, the dissonance with the other parts, that’s what makes it sound strange.

Well, that and the rhythm. Seriously! What is with that jolting, jerking rhythm? Considering this is a ballet, it must have to do with the story. The Rite of Spring is not exactly plot-driven but more episodic, if you will, like moving vignettes. It covers different pagan rites of spring, beginning with the relatively harmless and joyful and culminating a young girl’s sacrifice by dancing herself to death. Fun stuff! Considering the nature of the story and the characters involved, I understand the need for highly percussive and syncopated (against the beat) rhythm. It transports us and hopefully reaches to a place deep inside of us, a primal place where we still ache for blood sacrifices.

The Rite of Spring famously did just that. Paired with the innovative choreography of famous ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, the Rite of Spring was practically a scandal. In fairness, a lot of that blame does fall on Nijinsky. You see, in ballet, the dancers’ feet are supposed to look like this:

Turned Out

This position of the feet is called “turned out,” and it’s very important for some reason. (I’m a singer, not a dancer. I can’t know EVERYTHING.) Nijinsky, following the theme of the primitive, decided that turned out feet were just too pretty for this particular ballet. He had his dancers turn their feet IN.

Take THAT Bob Fosse!

Feet out= good. Feet in= bad. Period. So it was in ballet until a fateful day in Paris in 1913, a day that lives in infamy for musicians and dancers alike. That was the day The Rite of Spring premiered.

[The audience] began, very soon after the rise of the curtain, to make cat-calls and offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed. The orchestra played unheard, except occasionally when a slight lull occurred. The young man seated behind me in the box stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was labouring betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel this for some time. (White)

Whoa! All of this over one dumb little ballet? Surely people could conduct themselves with some kind of dignity during a performance of one of the most influential works in all of music, right? I mean, it’s not like there was a riot…

One beautifully dressed lady in an orchestra box stood up and slapped the face of a young man who was hissing in the next box. The old Comtesse de Pourtales [stood] up in her box with her face aflame and her tiara awry [and she cried out], as she brandished her fan, “This is the first time in sixty years that anyone has dared to make fun of me!” Nijinsky, with Stravinsky behind him, stood on a chair in the wings, beating out the rhythm with his fists and ‘shouting numbers to the dancers, like a coxswain.’ (White)

The audience began yelling so loudly that the dancers could not hear the music. The noise of fighting brought everything to a tumultuous roar. Police arrived and began to eject rioters from the theater. Doctors were called in to care for injured men and women. At some point, the orchestra is believed to have stopped playing entirely. But the dancers danced on.

So I guess I am not alone in finding this music difficult, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t riot over it. A ballet attempting to access the primal seemed to accomplish its goal more than anyone could predict. Instead of watching the primitives dance on stage, the wealthy onlookers became primitives themselves. It’s hard to deny the power of music that can transform humans into animals.

The Rite of Spring doesn’t turn me into an animal. I become a five year old again, frightened of the unknown and hiding under blankets.

White, Eric Walter (1966). Stravinsky the Composer and his Works (Original edition). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.