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Celebrating Samuel Barber and his Adagio for Strings

Last week, we celebrated what would have been American composer Samuel Barber’s 107th birthday. Upon the composer’s death in 1981, New York Times music critic Donal Henahan, penned an obituary that asserted “probably no other American composer has ever enjoyed such early, such persistent and such long-lasting acclaim.” Despite Barber’s great popularity with audiences, performers, and many critics, there is an unusually small amount of scholarly literature on his life and music, with scholars often casting Barber as a relatively insignificant, neo-Romantic composer.

There is perhaps no better reflection of Barber’s impact on American music culture than the legacy of his Adagio for Strings. In a 2004 BBC radio survey, the Adagio earned itself the title “the saddest song ever written” and has been utilized in several contexts that would support its new moniker. The Adagio was originally written as the middle movement of Barber’s first string quartet, op. 11 (1936) but exists today in myriad re-imaginations, some by the composer himself, some by close confidants of Barber, and still others that Barber likely would never have been able to imagine.

Barber created a five-part version of the Adagio for string orchestra that was premiered by Arturo Toscanini in 1938 and is the version most commonly heard today. This arrangement exploded into the American consciousness in 1945 when it was broadcast alongside a radio announcement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. Musicologist Luke Howard argues that this event marked the beginning of a process through which the Adagio garnered its connotation of sadness and mourning. The piece continued to be imbued with melancholy when it became the foundation to the media soundtrack during coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963. Writer and director Oliver Stone utilized the piece in his 1986 film Platoon, which depicts the horrors of the Vietnam war, and continued the semiotic association of the Adagio. Most recently, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attack, the Adagio became an integral part of the musical soundscape of a nation in mourning. American conductor and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor Leonard Slatkin, for example, conducted the final night of the 2001 BBC Proms with a tribute to the United States centered around the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Barber’s Adagio.

John F. Kennedy funeral procession on 25 November, 1963.
John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession leaves the White House on 25 November, 1963. Abbie Rowe, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But it would be shortsighted to view the Adagio as merely a piece of sad music. It’s music of reflection; music of peace. This can be seen in Barber’s own 1967 arrangement of the piece for chorus using the Agnus Dei text of the mass.

The piece has also made its way into electronic dance music (EDM) where it became a staple at raves, and a hugely popular song in the realm of trance after DJ Tiësto created his own arrangement in 2004. And just as Barber’s original Adagio was voted “the saddest song ever written,” Tiësto’s version was voted the second greatest dance track of all time by Mixmag readers in a 2013 survey.

The Adagio’s ability to reach the zenith in both the category of sadness and dance is perhaps the greatest indication of the diverse impact that this piece has had in the past 80 years both in the United States and around the world. It has been featured in television shows (The Simpsons, South Park, and How I Met Your Mother), films (The Elephant Man, Lorenzo’s Oil, Platoon), and in video games (Homeworld). The impact of this single piece alone cements Barber’s legacy not only in American art-music culture, but also popular culture as well.

Featured Image credit: Samuel Barber’s transcription of Claude Debussy’s Syrinx, 1960. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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