Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is quintessential sad music, especially for Americans. It’s been applied to the deaths of presidents, natural disasters, shootings, you name it. If there’s something worth crying about, chances are that if you listen hard enough, you’ll hear the Adagio being played somewhere.
Naturally, Samuel Barber was distraught while writing it, right? Well, not so much. The Adagio began life as the middle movement of a string quartet that Barber wrote in 1936. At the time, he was summering in Austria with the love of his life, Gian Carlo Menotti. Menotti wrote this about the quaint country cottage where they were staying.
The whole lake was visible, and one could see for miles and miles. We were so happy! Sam took the woodshed, and it was there he wrote his Adagio for Strings.”
Hm. Not exactly the stuff that weeping lays are made of. Thomas Larson writes this in his book The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
Composing the quartet’s Molto adagio appears to have been easy for Barber, as though he had been ready his whole twenty-six years to jot it down. On or about September 19, 1936, he commemorated the milestone in a letter to Cole: “I have just finished the slow movement of my quartet today – it is a knockout!”
That sounds less like he’s suffering beyond recognizable thought, and more like he just had a really spectacular day at the office. Moreover, it’s believed that Barber had only been working on the quartet since May of that year. That means that he composed one of the most appreciated pieces of music in history in a scant few months, with no obvious muse… other than his incredible level of joy.
We’re used to hearing stories about how music comes from the soul of the composer, and that the best, most sincere music is almost a subconscious response to life. Mozart wrote the mournful second movement of his Sinfonia Concertante after hearing of his mother’s death. Some musicologists speculate that the devastating Prelude to Bach’s D-minor Cello Suite was written shortly after the death of his beloved first wife. Beethoven’s heroic, defiant Fifth Symphony was written shortly after his Heiligenstadt Testament declares his intent to battle his deafness, and the breathtakingly beautiful Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony was all but dedicated to his wife Alma. How strange that this gem from an American master should disagree with his current life circumstances so profoundly.
Incidentally, I do recommend the original quartet rendition of the Adagio over the bigger string orchestra arrangement – there’s an electricity present in chamber music that simply doesn’t happen as readily in orchestral music. However, Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony presented the best YouTube recording that I could find, so there you have it.