Among the greatest works of sophisticated music, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings ranks among the prized gems of human creation. Intensely moving, surprisingly ordered and logical, this work of art reaches beyond ordinary entertainment or intellectual satisfaction to a deep emotional level.
Rather than simply relate the history and facts about the Adagio, I will include links and a video, than a brief personal reflection.
The choral version:
In B Flat minor, the score of the Adagio looks so deceptively simple. Except for the changing of time signatures, the music appears easily written. Yet this simplicity is the great genius of the work. Every expression meets what is required without embellishment or pretense.
The overlapping melodies slowly change the intensity of the sound like the opening and closing of a door. The chords are “opened”. These dissonances slide back and forth, gradually rising until a point where an emphasis is reached without resolution. The gradual cycle of climbing in volume as well as tone sets the drama of the crescendo to the exquisite fortissimo.
The high, emphatic notes toward this point stretch the limits of the violins to almost a screech or scream, then quickly dissipates in a serenity, though unresolved. The end of the piece does not end with the tonic, which is appropriate to the intention of the musical nature of the phrasing.
The work speaks to so many because of the dramatic way it describes in music an inner turmoil; of sadness or grief and the powerlessness, most everyone has felt at one time.
Here is the sheet music: