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The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings [NOOK Book]


An exploration of the cultural impact of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the Pieta? of music, and its enigmatic composer.

"Whenever the American dream suffers a catastrophic setback, Barber’s Adagio plays on the radio.”—Alex Ross, author of The Rest is Noise

In the first book ever to explore Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, music and literary critic Thomas Larson ...
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The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings

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An exploration of the cultural impact of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the Pieta? of music, and its enigmatic composer.

"Whenever the American dream suffers a catastrophic setback, Barber’s Adagio plays on the radio.”—Alex Ross, author of The Rest is Noise

In the first book ever to explore Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, music and literary critic Thomas Larson tells the story of the prodigal composer and his seminal masterpiece: from its composition in 1936, when Barber was just twenty-six, to its orchestral premiere two years later, led by the great Arturo Toscanini, and its fascinating history as America’s secular hymn for grieving our dead. Older Americans know Adagio from the funerals and memorials for Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy, Albert Einstein, and Grace Kelly. Younger Americans recall the work as the antiwar theme of the movie Platoon. Still others treasure the piece in its choral version under the name Agnus Dei. More recently, mourners heard Adagio played as a memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Barber’s Adagio is truly the saddest music ever written, enrapturing listeners with its lyric beauty as few laments have.

The Adagio’s sonorous intensity also speaks of the turbulent inner life of its composer, Samuel Barber (1910-1981), a melancholic who, in later years, descended into alcoholism and severe depression. Part biography, part cultural history, part memoir, The Saddest Music ever Written captures the deep emotion Barber’s great elegy has stirred throughout the world during its seventy-five-year history, becoming an icon of our national soul.
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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
“If Aaron Copland was the Updike of American music, then Samuel Barber was its Cheever. Larson provides a rich biographical context for Barber’s fervid creativity.”
Phyllis Nordstrom - Classical Voice of New England
“Written with great compassion and earnestness. An intimate history of this great work of music. it is the soundtrack of the soul.”
Eugene Drucker
“Rarely, if ever, have nine minutes of music been subjected to such intense cultural, historical, and emotional analysis.”
Kevin Bazzana
“An exploration of a fascinating composer, a case study in the cultural appropriation of works of art, and a very personal meditation on the power of music.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781605982007
  • Publisher: Pegasus
  • Publication date: 9/15/2010
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 365 KB

Meet the Author

Thomas Larson is the author of The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. For twelve years, he has been a staff writer for the San Diego Reader where he specializes in profiles, narrative nonfiction, and investigative journalism. A dynamic speaker, Larson presents workshops on memoir writing and lectures on Samuel Barber’s music throughout the country. he lives in San Diego with his partner Suzanna Neal.
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Read an Excerpt

The Saddest Music Ever Written

The Story of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings

By Thomas Larson

Pegasus Books LLC

Copyright © 2010 Thomas Larson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-2628-5


The Pietà of Music

OF MY PARENTS' GENERATION, THEIR DARKEST NATIONAL moment, after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, came the evening of April 12, 1945, some three and half years into the Second World War. At 5:48 P.M., Eastern War Time, the announcement went out on the radio that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the man who had pulled the country out of the Great Depression and was spearheading sixteen million U. S. military personnel toward a certain victory against the Nazis and an uncertain endgame against the Japanese, had died. Earlier that day, Roosevelt was seated in front of a portrait painter at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia. He often went there to recuperate from the pressures of travel, speeches, and negotiations. That week, he was resting for a trip to New York to open the United Nations. At 1:15 P.M., artist and sitter were about to break for lunch when Roosevelt said he had a "terrific headache." He collapsed and became unconscious. The sixty-three-year old, who suffered from infantile paralysis in his legs, was carried to his bed. There, his personal physician, Dr. Howard G. Bruenn, tried to revive him. He injected Roosevelt's heart with adrenaline, but to no avail. At 3:35 P.M., Bruenn pronounced him dead.

Eleanor Roosevelt, who was at a speaking engagement in Washington, D.C., got the news of his collapse. She returned to the White House and there heard her husband had died. At 5:05 P.M., she alerted Vice-President Harry Truman. Truman offered his condolences and wondered what he might do to help. "The question is," the nimble Eleanor countered, "what can we do for you." After she left, about an hour before Truman took the oath of office, Mrs. Roosevelt told an aide it was time the country knew.

The news, which seemed to toll every minute on radio sets across the nation, stunned almost everyone who heard it. In the pre-television era, few knew how exhausted Roosevelt had become. Though he was a chain-smoker, he was still mentally sharp. But friends and photographs would later attest that for the past month he'd been listless, his skin was ashen-gray, and he was lying down whenever he could. The loss of such a responsible man—symbol, booster, radio voice, consoler—hit people hard. Many said they felt an initial wave of shock, then emptiness, then deep sorrow. Regaining composure, people reminded one another of their greatest fear: What would happen with the war effort now that the commander in chief was gone? Roosevelt had been elated by the steady liberation of Europe and the impending surrender of Germany; V-E day would come in less than a month. But the other front was still volatile: hundreds of Americans were dying every day in the Battle of Okinawa, a prelude to the invasion of the Japanese mainland, to which Roosevelt had reluctantly agreed.

Broadcasters cancelled regular programs like Captain Midnight and the dinner hour's "Light Classics." With nothing to report, newsmen improvised to fill the airwaves, wondering aloud what would happen in Washington—Truman would be sworn in momentarily, a state funeral would take place, probably on Saturday. The burial would no doubt be in Hyde Park on Sunday. By 7:00 P.M., broadcasters had Truman's written statement to read: "It has pleased God in His infinite wisdom to take from us the immortal spirit of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.... The leader of his people in a great war, he lived to see the assurance of victory but not to share in it." While the statement was read, station managers began searching their record libraries for "appropriate" music. What among the stacks is worthy of such woe? They reached for the stalwarts. The mournfully agreeable Andante con moto of Schubert's Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished," Handel's poignantly regal Largo from the opera Xerxes. Hymns like "How Firm a Foundation" and "Nearer My God to Thee." Randall Thompson's "Testament of Freedom." Edward Elgar's "Souls of the Righteous." And, on a few turntables, the blistering (and perhaps inappropriate, considering the occasion) twenty-three-minute opening movement from Dimitri Shostakovich's freshly recorded Eighth Symphony, subtitled "Stalingrad."

There was one twelve-inch 78, a recent recording by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, that on-air personalities had played on Sundays or else very late at night. This music, Adagio for Strings, was by Samuel Barber, a young American composer, from a small town in Pennsylvania. "Adagio" is Italian for slowly, and that tempo marking, given a minor key and the timbre of strings, means heartfelt respect. By 8:00 P.M., engineers at WGN in Chicago and ABC and NBC in New York were, unbeknownst to one another, cuing up Barber's lament. As the Adagio played, its long-lined melody, rising and falling with beauty and seriousness, sounded perfectly appropriate. It was played that evening and repeated scores of times throughout the long weekend.

In millions of homes, living rooms and kitchens, bedrooms and parlors, Barber's piece resounded. One of those homes was that of my maternal grandparents, the Wallins, of Rockford, Illinois. On that night, assembled in their old Victorian house at 1620 State Street, were my grandmother, my grandfather, and his sister, my great-aunt. (Their daughter, my mother, tells me three decades later that she was in Washington when the announcement came across her desk at the War Department; my father heard it on a Navy supply ship somewhere near Okinawa. Everyone recalled where they were when they heard the news, a sentiment a later generation attached to the death of John F. Kennedy.) After a solemn dinner of baked potatoes, candied carrots, and pot roast, my mother's family gathered in the parlor near the Air Castle, the grandest of the large wooden console radios fashionable in middle-class families of the time. The first radio brought into my mother's home had arrived in 1926 when she was seven. Since then, she and her family warmed to countless fictional dramas, which plotted adversity to which characters responded with pluck or humor. On radio, war and worry were leavened by "The Shadow," "Tom Mix," and "The Jack Benny Program." By 1955, the Air Castle would be lugged upstairs to my great-aunt's room to stand beside her window air conditioner, where, as a boy, I would turn both devices on while she was at work and pretend I was listening to another era. Television, the parlor's new inhabitant, would eventually disenfranchise the radio's sound-authority. But on that April day, the sound crackled, the waves radiated, the house was abuzz with a grave intrusion. "The president is dead," the announcer said again, after which came the balm of Barber's music.

That night, people throughout America, in addition to my mother's family, were enthralled by the Adagio's aching darkness. The piece enacted the nation's grief. It lingered on and stretched out the moment's saddening woe. It caught many off guard, for they felt, in addition to a worrisome despair for their sons, husbands, and fathers overseas, the same emotion was dammed up in themselves, craving a similar release.

Barber's Adagio is the Pietà of music. It captures the sorrow and the pity of tragic death: listening to it, we are Mother Mary come alive—holding the lifeless Christ on our laps, one arm bracing the slumped head, the other offering him to the ages. The Adagio is a sound shrine to music's power to evoke emotion. Its elegiac descent is among the most moving expressions of grief in any art. The snaillike tempo, the constrained melodic line, its rise and fall, the periodic rests, the harmonic repetition, the harmonic color, the uphill slog, the climactic moment of its peaked eruption—all are crafted together into one magnificent effect: listeners, weeping in anguish, bear the glory and gravity of their grief. No sadder music have ever been written. (I know that Barber suggested a shorter duration.)

Over the centuries, a number of composers have written laments, and many of them rival Barber's gem. Bach's "Air on a G String," from the Orchestral Suite No. 3, is a tuneful dirge, often played at memorials while mourners file into a church or by a casket. In 1779, Mozart, who had cared for his dying mother, expressed his loss with one of the most rhapsodic elegies ever composed, the second movement of his Sinfonia Concertante. Another second movement, the Funeral March of Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony, features a ponderous melodic line whose tragic momentum the composer continually arrests and starts anew. Chopin's Funeral March, the third movement of his Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, composed 1837–1839, has a militaristic, even triumphal bearing. Like Beethoven's, Chopin's piece seems to hammer in the pain rather than assuage it. The contrasting middle section of the Funeral March takes us into a romantic glen, as though Chopin himself cannot bear his own morbidity and needs release. The lyricism of this section washes over the listener like a wave. These composers have a gift, as Barber did, for confirming with music what we already know—sad music intensifies sadness, and in that intensity, solace is somehow provided.

Still, none of these airs, adagios, and andantes is as singularly cast in sorrow as Barber's Adagio. Once people hear it, they seldom forget it. Its sound, which one music writer defines as "Old Testament," possesses near canonical identity. The piece is synonymous with sudden and unbearable losses, as the music critic Alex Ross states in The Rest Is Noise: "Whenever the American dream suffers a catastrophic setback, Barber's Adagio for Strings plays on the radio." It memorialized the deaths of Senator Robert A. Taft in 1953, Albert Einstein in 1955, and President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1963. (One friend of Barber's said he heard the music on the radio within ten minutes of Kennedy's assassination.) A postmidnight concert was held the day after Kennedy's burial. Included were excerpts from Debussy's La Mer (reflecting Kennedy's love of the ocean), the overture to Beethoven's Fidelio (reflecting Mrs. Kennedy's courage at his death), and Barber's Adagio. These pieces were played by the National Symphony Orchestra to an empty Constitution Hall.

For the funeral service of Princess Grace of Monaco, who died in a freakish car accident in 1982, John Vinocur for the New York Times wrote:

At one point in the funeral ceremony, while a part of Samuel Barber's soaring Adagio for Strings was being played, Prince Albert, who is 24, covered his face in his black-gloved hands. Princess Caroline, who wept, turned toward her father, who sat next to her by the altar, but the Prince [Rainier], partly slumped, eyes half-closed, did not raise his head.

The sorrow was affecting, intense, real. In a tiny place, once best known for a casino and still, it feels, not always taken very seriously, the family tragedy seemed terribly cruel.

Vinocur also said a friend of the Prince "described him as experiencing 'one of the most deep, most total sadnesses'" at the loss of his beloved wife. The Adagio was also played at Prince Rainier's funeral in 2005, perhaps as a salute to their reunion.

Ironically, in his later years, Barber had grown testy with the work's renown. He felt that he'd written equally notable pieces (among them the violin and piano concertos) and wanted those performed as well. He actually requested that his most famous piece not be played at his funeral. When Barber died in January 1981 of cancer, six weeks shy of his seventy-first birthday, his death announcement read, "The family and friends of Samuel Barber record with the greatest sadness the passing of Samuel Barber, who gave them a unique joy and to all the world his music." His funeral service was accompanied by Bach chorales, a few of Barber's vocal works, including his setting of Dover Beach, and a madrigal by Gian Carlo Menotti, best known for his Amahl and the Night Visitors, who was Barber's lifelong companion and lover.

Despite Barber's conflicted relationship with the Adagio, friends visiting at the hospital engaged a string quartet to play the piece (in its original arrangement) for him just before he died. That week, Lukas Foss conducted the Adagio with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, dedicating the performance to the bedridden composer. On January 29, 1981, six days after Barber died, Leonard Bernstein presented the piece in a concert of Barber's music with the New York Philharmonic. It was performed again in 2007 at a memorial for Menotti, who died that year at the age of ninety-five.

Film fame began for the Adagio with The Elephant Man in 1980. In David Lynch's tender portrayal, we grow exhausted watching the hideously misshapen John Merrick suffer. Barber's music accompanies Merrick's death, which is a dreamy, even triumphal end. In that moment, the elegy sounds more peaceful than sad, releasing Merrick from his lifetime of suffering into a kinder, more hopeful beyond. Lynch told National Public Radio that the movie dealt with "an ugly surface, and a beauty within." For him and Merrick, the Adagio evoked the latter.

The Adagio became widely popular as the theme of the 1986 movie Platoon, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The film is saturated with the music as well as bathed in the raw emotions of war: male jealousy and bonding, fear, sadism, hatred, and self-loathing. Constantly replayed, the piece colors the mood of various scenes, whether it's PFC Taylor reflecting upon his uncertainty about the war in letters to his grandmother, or the platoon's burning a small village and terrorizing the Vietnamese with rape and murder. The Adagio, known in pop culture as "the music from Platoon," memorializes the sacrificed American soldier and pins us, the viewer, who may feel complicit in the deed, to his inescapable doom. (Another dirge, the Adagio in G minor, which the Italian composer Remo Giazotto falsely attributed to the Baroque composer, Tomaso Albinoni—it was actually Giazotto's own work—was used to similar effect in the antiwar film Gallipoli.) Other film directors, hearing Barber's power at flinting and kindling emotion, have featured the Adagio at strategic moments in their movies. The best known are Lorenzo's Oil, El Norte, Les roseaux sauvages [The Wild Reeds], The Scarlet Letter, Simone, and Amélie, where the heroine imagines Barber's lament played at her own funeral.

The score has been used on television to sell perfume in France, to grieve the death of a soap opera star on One Life to Live, and to overdramatize a David Blaine stunt. It has been memorably parodied in episodes of South Park, The Simpsons, and Seinfeld. Thinking back to his days as a cook during the Korean War, George Costanza's father, Frank, recalls making a meal with spoiled meat. Shown in a black-and-white flashback, the soldiers convulse, their vomitory agonies accompanied by the Adagio. Then there's the 2000 William Orbit version, a trance music remix, which, by adding a techno pulse to synthesized violins, shuttles the piece from chapel to disco. It may be the equivalent of the 1960s' pie-in-the-face poster of Che Guevera.

In 1986, the Adagio was included in a New York concert as remembrance for the Challenger astronauts who died shortly after take-off. In 1995, the piece was featured at an Oklahoma City memorial service for the one hundred sixty-eight people who died in the bombing of the federal building. Then, in London, on September 15, 2001, Slatkin, who has called the Adagio "the classical music world's sound of grief," led the BBC orchestra in a performance of the work at the Royal Albert Hall as a tribute to the victims of 9/11, which included sixty-seven British citizens among the dead. Before beginning, Slatkin told his audience that in America the Adagio is used for memorials in the same way that Edward Elgar's "Nimrod," the most famous of his Enigma Variations, is used as national mourning music in the United Kingdom. Slatkin then asked for a minute of silence.

The Slatkin 9/11 version runs an agonizing ten minutes and twenty seconds, before the bereaved audience claps to relieve the near unbearable tension. It's perhaps the longest performance ever of the Adagio. Two YouTube videos of it exist as of 2010. One is of the performance itself, viewed more than six hundred thousand times. In it, cameras pan four massive crowds (London; Liverpool; St. Austell, Cornwall; and Gateshead, beside Newcastle Upon Tyne), who have gathered outside to hear a simulcast performance and wave their American flags and Union Jacks. The other video is a patchwork (seen some 2.3 million times), featuring the orchestral performance, scenes from the rubble and the search for survivors, and slow-panned facial portraits of firemen, rescue workers, and ordinary citizens, searching for loved ones.

In February of 2008, four children were killed in a school bus accident near Marshall, Minnesota. The Minneapolis-based Minnesota Orchestra was scheduled to play in Marshall that weekend when its conductor, Osmo Vänskä, heard of the tragedy. At once, he programmed Barber's Adagio as a gesture of sympathy to the stricken town. "We would like to give this small community a chance to put those sad emotional feelings to the music," Vänskä told a reporter while driving to the performance. He knew what he was speaking of: a few years earlier he and the orchestra had played the Adagio for another Minnesota community that was mourning the deaths of several hometown national guardsmen in Iraq. "I know it's a way to take care of people," Vänskä said. "It will be very sad at Marshall; there will be many tears. But music can speak. Music goes deeper than any words. When all the words are completed and finished, then it is time for the music to start. It really takes care of the spirit."


Excerpted from The Saddest Music Ever Written by Thomas Larson. Copyright © 2010 Thomas Larson. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Part One,
The Pietà of Music,
The Adagio's Emotional History,
A Great Future Behind Him,
One Austrian Summer, 1936,
The Toscanini Premiere,
My Father's Fate,
First Interlude,
How to Describe the Adagio,
The Composition of Sorrow,
Part Two,
A Gay Collaboration,
Barber's Symphonic Dilemma,
My Father's War,
That Melancholic Strain,
My Grandmother's Safety,
From Knoxville to Kierkegaard,
Second Interlude,
How to Play the Adagio,
The Expression of Sorrow,
Part Three,
A Pair of Operas,
Barber's Last Years,
My Mother's Grace,
The Adagio as Sound Image,
The Musical Legacy,
The Mystery of the Icon,
At the Grave,
Works Consulted, Works Quoted,
Copyright Page,

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2013


    Some interesting history, but the book is repetitious. Each chapter seems to just repeat the theme of the previous chapter. I haven't finished it yet and not sure I will.

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