Adagio for Strings
|Adagio for Strings|
|by Samuel Barber|
|Based on||String Quartet (base for Agnus Dei)|
|Location||New York radio studio|
A thirty-second sample of a recording of Adagio for Strings from the film Platoon
Adagio for Strings is a work by Samuel Barber, arguably his most well known, arranged for string orchestra from the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. Barber finished the arrangement in 1936, the same year that he wrote the quartet. It was performed for the first time in 1938, in a radio broadcast from a New York studio attended by an invited audience, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, who also took the piece on tour to Europe and South America. Its reception was generally positive, with Alexander J. Morin writing that Adagio for Strings is "full of pathos and cathartic passion" and that it "rarely leaves a dry eye." The music is the setting for Barber's 1967 choral arrangement of Agnus Dei. Adagio for Strings can be heard in many TV shows and movies.
Barber's Adagio for Strings began as the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11, composed in 1936 while he was spending a summer in Europe with his partner Gian Carlo Menotti, an Italian composer who was a fellow student at the Curtis Institute of Music. The inspiration came from Virgil's Georgics. In the quartet the Adagio follows a violently contrasting first movement (Molto allegro e appassionato) and is succeeded by music which opens with a brief reprise of the music from the first movement (marked Molto allegro (come prima) – Presto).
In January 1938 Barber sent an orchestrated version of the Adagio for Strings to Arturo Toscanini. The conductor returned the score without comment, which annoyed Barber. Toscanini then sent word through Menotti that he was planning to perform the piece and had returned it simply because he had already memorized it. It was reported that Toscanini did not look at the music again until the day before the premiere. On November 5, 1938, a selected audience was invited to Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center to watch Toscanini conduct the first performance, a radio broadcast which was recorded for posterity. Initially, the critical reception was positive, as seen in the review by The New York Times's Olin Downes. Downes praised the piece, but he was reproached by other critics who claimed that he overrated the piece.
Toscanini took Adagio for Strings on tour to South America and Europe, the first performances of the work on both continents. Over April 16–19, 1942, the piece had public performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy at Carnegie Hall. Like the original 1938 performance, these were broadcast on radio and recorded.
Adagio for Strings begins softly with a B-flat played by the first violins. The lower strings come in two beats after the violins, which, as Johanna Keller from The New York Times put it, creates "an uneasy, shifting suspension as the melody begins a stepwise motion, like the hesitant climbing of stairs." NPR Music said that "with a tense melodic line and taut harmonies, the composition is considered by many to be the most popular of all 20th-century orchestral works." Many recordings of the piece have a duration of about eight minutes.
The Adagio is an example of arch form and builds on a melody that first ascends, then descends in stepwise fashion. Barber subtly manipulates the basic pulse throughout the work by constantly changing time signatures including 4/2, 5/2, 6/4, and 3/2. After four climactic chords and a long pause, the piece presents the opening theme again, and fades away on an unresolved dominant chord.
Music critic Olin Downes wrote that the piece is very simple at climaxes, but reasoned that the simple chords create significance for the piece. Downes went on to say: "That is because we have here honest music, by an honest musician, not striving for pretentious effect, not behaving as a writer would who, having a clear, short, popular word handy for his purpose, got the dictionary and fished out a long one."
Alexander J. Morin, author of Classical Music: The Listener's Companion, said that the piece was "full of pathos and cathartic passion" and that it "rarely leaves a dry eye." In 1938, Olin Downes noted that with the piece, Barber "achieved something as perfect in mass and detail as his craftsmanship permits."
In an edition of A conductor's analysis of selected works, John William Mueller devoted over 20 pages to Adagio for Strings. Wayne Clifford Wentzel, author of Samuel Barber: A Research and Information Guide (Composer Resource Manuals), said that it was a piece usually selected for a closing act because it was moderately famous. Roy Brewer, writer for AllMusic, stated that it was one of the most recognizable pieces of American concert music.
- Solo organ (1949) – William Strickland
- Clarinet choir (1964) – Lucien Cailliet
- Woodwind band (1967) – John O'Reilly
- Agnus Dei (1967) – Samuel Barber – Latin text setting of "Agnus Dei" (Lamb of God) for chorus with optional organ or piano accompaniment
Strickland, while assistant organist at St Bartholomew's Church in New York, had been impressed by Toscanini's recording of the work and had submitted his own arrangement for organ to Schirmers. After making contact with Barber at a musical soirée in 1939, his transcription received a lukewarm response from the composer. Strickland, subsequently appointed wartime director of music at Fort Myer in Virginia, became a champion of Barber's new compositions and remained in correspondence. In 1945 Barber wrote to Strickland, expressing his dissatisfaction with previously proposed organ arrangements; he encouraged him to discuss and prepare his own version for publication.
Schirmers have had several organ arrangements submitted of my "Adagio for Strings" and many inquiries as to whether it exists for organ. I have always turned them down, as, I know little about the organ, I am sure your arrangement would be best. Have you got the one you did before, if not, would you be willing to make it anew? If so, will you ever be in N.Y. on leave, so I could discuss it with you and hear it? If it is done at all, I should like it done as well as possible, and this by you. They would pay you a flat fee for the arrangement, although I don't suppose it will be very much. However, that is their affair. Let me know what you think about it.
Strickland, having kept the piece, sent his organ arrangement to G. Schirmer, who eventually published it in 1949.
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The recording of the 1938 world premiere, with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra, was selected in 2005 for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry at the United States Library of Congress. Since the 1938 recording, the Adagio for Strings has frequently been heard throughout the world, and was one of the few American pieces to be played in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The Adagio for Strings has been performed on many public occasions, especially during times of sadness. It was:
- Broadcast over the radio at the announcement of Franklin D. Roosevelt's death;
- Broadcast over the TV at the announcement of John F. Kennedy's death
- Played at the funeral of Albert Einstein;
- Played at the funeral of Princess Grace of Monaco;
- Broadcast on BBC Radio to profound emotional effect several times after the announcement of the death of Princess Diana.
- Performed at Last Night of the Proms in 2001 at the Royal Albert Hall to commemorate the victims of the September 11 attacks;
- Played during the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics to commemorate the fatal crash of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili;
- Played at the state funeral of Canadian New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton;
Adagio for Strings is the final song on the 2010 Peter, Paul and Mary compilation album Peter Paul and Mary, With Symphony Orchestra. Mary Travers had requested that Adagio for Strings be played at her memorial service.
The Adagio for Strings was one of John F. Kennedy's favorite pieces of music. Jackie Kennedy arranged a concert the Monday after his death with the National Symphony Orchestra and they played to an empty hall. The concert went out on radio. Barber knew about these memorial occasions. He did a radio interview about it with WQXR and said 'they always play that piece. I wish they'd play some of my other pieces.'
In 2004, listeners of the BBC's Today program voted Adagio for Strings the "saddest classical" work ever, ahead of "Dido's Lament" from Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell, the Adagietto from Gustav Mahler's 5th symphony, Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss, and Gloomy Sunday as sung by Billie Holiday.
Film and TV soundtracks
Adagio for Strings can be heard on many film soundtracks:
- Amélie (2001), directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
- A Very Natural Thing (1974)
- El Norte (1983)
- Lorenzo's Oil (1992)
- Platoon, (1986) directed by Oliver Stone
- Reconstruction (2003)
- Sicko (2007), a documentary by Michael Moore
- Swimming Upstream (2003)
- The Elephant Man (1980), directed by David Lynch
It has been heard in episodes of Daria, The Simpsons, Big Brother 2010 (UK), That Mitchell and Webb Look, The Boondocks, South Park, American Dad!, How I Met Your Mother, Seinfeld, ER (TV series), Red Dwarf, Band of Brothers, Big Love, Misfits, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Pramface, and the live-action Japanese drama Nodame Cantabile.
- Morin, Alexander (2001). Classical Music: Third Ear: The Essential Listening Companion. Backbeat Books. p. 74. ISBN 0-87930-638-6.
- Keller, Johanna (March 7, 2010). "An Adagio for Strings, and for the Ages". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-03-07.
- Woodstra, Chris; Brennan, Gerald; Schrott, Allen (2005). All Music Guide to Classical Music: The Definitive Guide to Classical Music. Backbeat Books. p. 81. ISBN 0-87930-865-6.
- "The Toscanini-Barber Brouhaha – interview with Barbara Heyman". All Things Considered – The Impact of Barber's 'Adagio for Strings' (National Public Radio). November 4, 2006. Retrieved 2011-11-13.(Audio clip)
- Heyman, Barbara B (1992). Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 167–180. ISBN 0-19-509058-6.
- Tick, Judith; Beaudoin, Paul, eds. (September 26, 2008). Music in the USA: a documentary companion (at Google Books). Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 0-19-513987-9. Retrieved 2010-10-02.
- "The Impact of Barber's 'Adagio for Strings'". NPR. November 4, 2006. Archived from the original on October 23, 2010. Retrieved 2010-10-02.
- "Adagio for Strings, Samuel Barber". Schirmer.com. Retrieved 2010-10-02.
- "Adagio For Strings – Brass Quintet". Brass Music Online. Retrieved 2010-10-02.[dead link]
- Larson, Thomas (2010). The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings". Pegasus Books. ISBN 1-60598-115-X.
- Braun, Gene; McLanathan, Richard (1991). The Arts (Great Contemporary Issues Series). Ayer Co Pub. p. 132. ISBN 0-405-11153-3.
- Downes, Olin (1968). Olin Downes on music: a selection from his writings during the half-century 1906 to 1955. Greenwood Publishing Group. ASIN B0006BYVRG.
- Mueller, John William (1992). A conductor's analysis of selected works. John William Mueller. pp. 187–210.
- "Adagio for strings (or string quartet; arr. from 2nd mvt. of String Quartet), Op. 11". Allmusic. Retrieved 2010-10-02.
- Heyman, Barbara B (1992), Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-509058-6
- "The National Recording Registry 2005". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2007-04-27.
- Lee, Douglas A. (2002). Masterworks of 20th Century Music: The Modern Repertory Of The Symphony Orchestra. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-93846-5.
- Barnes, Anthony (September 16, 2001). "Tradition yields to compassion". The Independent (London). Retrieved April 23, 2010.[dead link]
- "A night of mourning as Winter Games officially begin". Bild.com. February 13, 2010. Retrieved July 11, 2010.
- "In Photos: Canadian NDP Leader Jack Layton's procession, funeral".
- "Peter, Paul and Mary Soar Again with Symphony Orchestra". February 10, 2010. Retrieved 2011-11-13.
- "WQXR Features Barber's Adagio: The Saddest Piece Ever?". September 8, 2010. Retrieved 2012-08-30.
- "Today: search for the world's saddest music". Retrieved 2011-11-12.
- "Saddest Music shortlist". Retrieved 2011-11-12.
- Higgins, Charlotte (March 28, 2006). "Big demand for classical downloads is music to ears of record industry". Guardian Unlimited (London). Retrieved April 23, 2010.
- "IMDb listing of films using music by Barber, almost all the Adagio". uk.imdb.com. Retrieved 2010-12-04.
- "Paul Ruskay – Homeworld – Original Soundtrack". Discogs.
- Sansone, Glen (February 14, 2000). "William Orbit". CMJ New Music Report (CMJ): 20.
- "Billboard Dance". Billboard: 87. October 10, 2005.
- Jacks, Kelso (January 31, 2000). "Record News". CMJ New Music Report (CMJ): 11.
- "MuseWiki: Interlude (song)". MuseWiki.org.
- "Era Classics – Overview". Allmusic. Retrieved 2010-10-02.
- Sample from the BBC
- NPR 100: Barber's Adagio
- The Impact Of Barber's Adagio by All Things Considered
- Special on the selection of the 1938 broadcast debut of Adagio for Strings to the 2005 National Recording Registry
- Barber's Adagio: Naked Expression Of Emotion – audio report by NPR
- Agnus Dei, Barber's own choral setting performed a cappella by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, conducted by Richard Marlow