The 1930s saw a great number of important pieces of classical music published, despite the Great Depression. In Europe, among the pieces published were Maurice Ravel’s two Piano Concerti, Dmitri Shostakovich’s iconic Symphony No. 5, Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, and Carl Orff’s secular cantata, Carmina Burana. In the United States, Roy Harris published his Symphony No. 3, Roger Sessions released his Violin Concerto, and Samuel Barber wrote Adagio for Strings.
Samuel Barber (1910–1981) was one of the greatest American composers, and his Adagio for Strings is one his best loved pieces, as well as one of the most important pieces of American classical music. It was originally published in 1936 as the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11, but Barber was so satisfied with it that he arranged it for string orchestra, which is the version most commonly heard today.
Adagio for Strings is a mixture of simplicity and complexity. American classical music scholar Joe Horowitz said during an NPR feature about the piece, “It sounds like Bach. Somebody who didn’t like this piece would call it ersatz Bach. I don’t think it sounds particularly American.” It’s true that a lot of the piece draws on older classical European customs. The music is very clearly tonal, and is rhythmically simple, consisting only of note values of quarter notes and longer. However, while Adagio for Strings seems conservative at first, closer investigation reveals a truly unique piece; the seemingly traditionalist surface masks a much more intricate novel structure. In a way, this reflects a long trend in American culture. The meter in the Adagio changes constantly, making it quite difficult to find a pulse within the piece. The piece, which is written in B-flat minor (a traditionally dark key), also ends on an unresolved dominant chord, which leaves the listener without closure and not fully satisfied. Both of these effects give the piece a feeling of ambiguity which adds to its emotional expressiveness. The emotion of remorse and melancholy the Adagio expresses is also appropriate for the national and worldwide situation during the Great Depression.
Nearly as important as the structure of the piece itself is the overwhelming reaction it has received since its publication. Barber realized the value of his piece before he published it, writing to a friend after he finished the original string quartet version, “It’s a knockout.” The piece was an immediate success, and continues to be one of the most popular pieces of music from the twentieth century, and has become associated with sadness and mourning. The list of people who had Adagio for Strings performed at their funerals includes Franklin D. Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Leonard Bernstein, and many members of the military. The piece has also been used in countless films. Somehow, Barber’s Adagio has managed to capture the imaginations of people from throughout the world. In fact, during the Cold War, the Adagio for Strings was one of the only American pieces allowed to be played in the Soviet Union.
Adagio for Strings is a complex work, but it in no way represents all of America during the 1930s. It only really represents a single emotion, even if that emotion was more common during this time than normal. However, Barber’s Adagio for Strings does an astonishingly good job of representing the one emotion it is meant to represent.
Three great NPR stories:
A New York Times article:
Wikipedia’s article on the subject:
A score from the New York Philharmonic Digital Archives:
A performance by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin:
The 1938 premiere performance by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini: