Adagio for Strings – the saddest beautiful music ever written?

I’ve always enjoyed music, and I’m not beholden to a particular brand. Sometimes, I like to the feel the aggression of metal, other times I relate to geeks like Weezer. I’ll go on a kick of listening to the Strokes for hours on end, or the White Stripes, or Rush, and at different times in my life – or different things in my head – those artists all speak to me in some way or another. The only genre I don’t listen to much is country, and even in that there are some songs that touch me, or that I find fun.

I’ll often turn on a Pandora station when I go to bed – something relaxing, like medication or classical music – and listen until I fall asleep. This week I was awakened by a song that stirred my soul. I woke up and said to myself “This is the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.” Then I went back to sleep, too tired to grab my phone and learn the song’s name. Later this week, the song popped up again, during daylight hours, so I was able to see the name and artist of the song.

It was Adagio for Strings, by Samuel Barber. This is the song I heard in the middle of the night. Before I start to venture into the uncomfortable, take a listen. It’s long by today’s standards – more than 8 minutes – but it’s well worth it. And if you really want to listen to it, shut out the rest of the world, close your eyes, and absorb this music.

I don’t know if you heard what I heard, because I suspect that music speaks differently to us at different times – depending largely on where we are mentally, emotionally, maybe even spiritually. But let me tell you what I hear in this music: Life. And not necessarily an all pleasant one, either, but not an altogether bad one. Nearly every time I listen to this song, I feel emotion well up in me. I feel my face grow flush, and I feel my eyes moisten. I don’t know what it is, exactly, and I lack the music education to fully understand, perhaps. And maybe having that knowledge would take something away from the experience of just listening to it – instead of trying to analyze it. And I know I’ve heard this before. It apparently was part of the soundtrack for the movie Platoon, and a little research showed me that it was played over the radio for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral, and on the TV announcement of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

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.

The other day at work, I slipped outside and listened to this piece. The sun was shining, and it was warmer than it should be this time of year. The wind wasn’t blowing, but it occasionally moved and touched my face, softly yet enough to make its presence felt. I could, in a sense, see and feel parts of my life in this song. I could feel the hopefulness and promise, and the beauty growing as the music progressed. Then, I felt that sense of foreboding, that all that good couldn’t last. I think I heard lost innocence as well, or at least some recognition that song can’t end the way it began. But again, it struck me with hope and excitement, but this time it was blended with pain and memory of the past. So while it was still hopeful, maybe not as much in the earlier measures. It was melancholy, past pain, effort and hope all at once. Then a pause. A rest. A moment of submission, maybe, or just a moment of feeling so very tired everything needed to stop, just for a little while. The music begins again, slower, simpler, with less aim for the future. And then, somewhere between the four and five minute mark, there is an impassioned fight. It feels to me like the desperate sound of trying, here near the end, to make all those hopes and dreams a reality. The volume increase, the pace quickens, and it seems for a while there is belief, however desperate, that it won’t end the same as before – that this time the music will break through. There seems to be just one more plateau to climb, and the horizon will open and give all that it holds. That the minor chords will give way to the pleasantness of the majors, that the melodies will come together and find their resolution they’ve been seeking.

And then the high notes hold, long and painful in the ears. Followed by a brief silence. And a return to the somber sound of what could’ve been. Of all those minutes of hope and passion and repeated attempts to break through, laced with sad acceptance that the song is near its end.

That’s what I hear, anyway.

If you feel like it, tell me what you think in the comments. Also, I’m kind of exploring this classical music bit for a while, so shoot me any recommendations.

1 thought on “Adagio for Strings – the saddest beautiful music ever written?

  1. I love classical music, but most “violin” music is not among my favorites. This is one big exception. There’s something so organic about it. It just flows and evokes comfortable emotions. Partly it’s because of the harmonies, which are so natural, but also the tones are comfortable, not harsh, not daring, not distracting, not extreme, and all within a limited range. Just nice design.

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