Samuel Barber ‘Adagio for Strings’: Diving into an Emotional Abyss

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936) was originally written as the second movement of his String Quartet in B minor (Op. 11), however in the same year Barber rearranged this movement for a full string orchestra . This piece was written in a really musically fruitful time for Barber, with his work becoming more well received between the years 1936-1939. This is quite ironic considering that Adagio for Strings is perhaps one of the most emotionally driven compositions to ever grace the land, with it being labelled as the ‘unofficial national anthem of sorrow.’ The piece has been has been played for a variety of different occasions, most notably funerals and memorial services, which include the likes of Albert Einstein, John. F. Kennedy and Princess Diana. The piece has also made many appearances on TV and film, with Platoon and The Elephant Man being the most striking. The piece has also been popular within trance music and has been used as a sample track on a few different instrumental trance tracks.

Adagio for Strings starts ever so delicately with a Bb held by the violins, which progresses into hesitant crotchet step movement that creates an eerie atmosphere to the introductory section. This ascending melodic cell is passed around the orchestra and is manipulated in very subtle ways, which consequently makes this piece in arch form.  The meter varies throughout the movement, thought 4/2 time is usually returned to after a sequence in 2/2 or 3/2. This first musical cell is restated by the violas a little later on, although this time they play a fifth down from the original sequence. The timbre of the violas adds a dark, yet comforting sound to the emotional sound world that Barber is trying to create, to which he also uses varying ranges of the instruments to create a compelling, polyphonic section that makes all parts incredibly important.

The incredibly expansive middle section is so very moving with the orchestra acting more as a string choir, which work together to create a more natural sound. The cellos play in a rather high register, that of a mezzo-soprano, which creates a somewhat lighter texture within the ensemble as the violins are also playing in a middle register, although this does grow into fruition slightly later in this section. To emphasise the gripping nature of the end of this section, Barber eradicates all bass lines, leaving the upper strings to ‘fend for themselves’ and fulfil the melodic contours, which reach start reaching some high points, which further grows and grows until the upper violins start creating a ‘swelling’ feeling. I particularly love this end section as it really highlights the wonderful instrument that is the viola. The orchestra build together, each reaching higher and higher registers until the fortissimo-forte section is heard, which is just completely heart-rendering and you’d have to be a distant relative of a brick if it doesn’t touch you even just a little bit. A short pause is then heard, which feels like forever if you’ve emotionally committed to the music as it feels like Barber has tried ripping your heart out of your chest, but then he changes his mind and let’s go, and you’re plunged back into reality once more.

The final section essentially recaps the first melodic cell that was heard in the introduction, as well as an inverted restatement of the second theme, which amalgamate into a contrapuntal concoction of luscious string sounds. The dynamic is piano and I am usually a blubbering mess at this point, so don’t you worry if you’re the same. The oh-so delicate restatement of the first theme is very penetrating as it takes you back to the beginning, before the ‘big fizz’ of the sound world erupted. A solemn line played by the violas and cellos bring a dark, yet incredibly sad timbre to the mixture, making it a very sad farewell at the end of the piece where the instruments slowly die out. I absolutely love this piece and I listen to it everyday as it is on my sleeping playlist, it is so very calming and it’s a piece that, if you let it, will take you into a new sound world (which is worth it, trust me on that one).

This is a piece I highly recommend you listen to as it can be a vehicle of escape for those who need it, or a comforting blanket if that’s what you so desire. Adagio for Strings for me is something that I rely on to let me cry if I need to sometimes, it’s strange, it’s there for you like a friend, but its friendship is shown through musical means instead of physical. Let yourself connect with it, let Barber take you away for 10 minutes and he’ll bring you back at the end, just so long as you trust where he is taking you. Who cares if it’s a bit cliché, its a wonderful piece of music!

 

Recommended recordings:

This recording is very balanced, its perhaps one of my favourite recordings of this piece.

This version, played by Detroit Symphony Orchestra is really lovely also – plus you get to watch the musicians play which is always a bonus!

 

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