Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings

Posted: December 22, 2011 in Uncategorized
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“Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is a short instrumental piece for orchestra. The work is a slow, minor-key lament, which evokes a deep sadness in those who hear it… The Adagio has captured the emotions of millions of listeners since Barber first wrote it as the middle movement of a string quartet in September 1936.”~Thomas Larson, on Adagio for Strings

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) was an American composer. His most famous and well-known composition is Adagio for Strings.

I believe that his composition by now is known worldwide. It can be heard in numerous soundtracks on television shows and in film.

Adagio for Strings was written in 1936. It made its premiere in late 1938 when conductor, Arturo Toscanini lead the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The performance was recorded for posterity. It was selected in 2005 for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry at the United States Library of Congress.

After the piece was performed in 1938, Alexander J. Morin wrote that Adagio for Strings is “full of pathos and cathartic passion” and that it “rarely leaves a dry eye.”

I believe that to be true. After hearing it for the first time from watching the “edited for television” version of the film Platoon, I was captured by it. At the moment I knew what it was and who had wrote it, I set out on an adventure to find the recording. When I did, I brought it home and played it endlessly for hours, crying most of the time because I was very moved by the entire thing.

I would then find it in someone else’s music collection and began to play it. But I was asked to turn it off because it made them cry.

Adagio for Strings was played over the radio at the announcement of the death of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was also played at the funerals of people like Albert Einstein and Princess Grace of Monaco. In 2001, Adagio for Strings was played at “Last Night at the Proms” in the Royal Albert Hall to commemorate the victims of the attacks of September 11th. It was also played at the openin ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

And still I believe that many of us have heard it at one time or another. The use of the piece has been everywhere in the past several decades.

As I mentioned, it was on the soundtrack for the film, Platoon. It was played throughout the entire movie. Over and over again.

But it made earlier appearances in such films as Lorenzo’s Oil, and The Elephant Man.

In 1967, Samuel Barber transcribed it for an eight-part choir, as Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).

This too, has been widely used in soundtracks for films. From what I have researched, it was including in American television and films such as:

  • The Scarlet Letter
  • El Norte
  • The Boondocks
  • Amélie
  • S1m0ne
  • South Park
  • American Dad
  • Seinfeld
  • The Simpsons
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • ER
  • Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny

Either played as Adagio for Strings or Agnus Dei.

The one time that Adagio for Strings was used in a soundtrack for film that was very moving and haunting was HBO’s television film from 1996 called Crime of the Century.

It is a dramatization of the Lindbergh kidnapping. Stephen Rea plays the role of Bruno Richard Hauptmann. The man who was convicted of the crime and put to death by execution in the electric chair in New Jersey.

Ironic foot note: The execution of Bruno Richard Hauptmann also took place in 1936. The same year in which Adagio for Strings was composed.

Adagio for Strings is played in its entirety. (Most recordings of either piece run about 8 minutes in length or even more.)

The piece begins as Hauptmann is led from his jail cell in the New Jersey State Prison, and begins his journey from his cell to the point of his death. The fortissimo and crescendo comes as he is being put to death. I really thought that it was intense. The use of the music was very well timed, and I also wondered if the film “was going to show the execution and death”. In which it does to a degree. The rest of the piece along with the film shows the grief and sadness and confusion of Hauptmann’s wife as she waits at home and is told that now she is a widow. One couldn’t help but shed a tear.

In 2004, listeners of the BBC’s Today program voted Adagio for Strings the “saddest classical” work ever.

Accentus performs Barber's 'Agnus Dei'

Either version of the music, choral or instrumental, it is a timeless masterpiece in my opinion. It totally envokes and draws emotion from within. And still with its overwhelming power of sadness and intensity, it is one of my favorite pieces of music to listen to.

However, since I discovered the choral transcription, I tend to listen to it more than the orchestral.

Because of my admiration and fascination of Adagio for Strings, I’ve always wanted to write a screenplay about Samuel Barber with the focus on his composition. Or I have often thought about conducting it for a performance. Perhaps one day I will work on those projects. But for now, I will always enjoy listening to it.

You can find many different adaptations of it on YouTube. Including the performance by Accentus.

 

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