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Book Review

The Saddest Music Ever Written

The Saddest Music Ever Written

The Story of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings"

Thomas Larson
New York: Pegasus Books. 2010. 262 pages.
ISBN-10: 160598115X
ISBN-13: 978-1605981154
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Summary for the Busy Executive: Definitely worth your time.

Thomas Larson has done something impressive. He's written a book of 200-plus pages on an 8-minute piece of music. Ever since I heard of the book, I wondered how in the world he could bring it off. After all, once you get through talking about the circumstances of the composition and the description of the work, what's left?

As it turns out, quite a lot. Barber's Adagio is one of those rare iconic works – like Beethoven's Fifth – that has buried its hooks not only into individuals but into an entire culture. I initially dismissed the title as advertising or lazy writing. After all, does the music evoke sadness any better than any number of works by Vaughan Williams, Beethoven, Mahler, or Fauré? For sheer grief, it's hard to beat Bloch's Schelomo. Then I learned from Larson that the Adagio actually won (by a lot) some British poll as something like The Saddest Music Ever, so the title was at least tethered to some factual reality. Also, Larson comes up with other "sorrow-worthy" scores. It's not as if he's wedded to the idea.

At any rate, the book itself is an odd one. It's as much a meditation on grief and on the ways music allows us to express it.

Music in itself, of course, "means" nothing other than its notes. Indeed, we have created an elaborate series of conventional representations for emotions in music. For example, if we hear a slow tempo and a minor key, we tend to think sadness. But not all slow tempos and not all minor modes mean sadness and certainly not for all time. Different musical eras had different musical conventions. The Renaissance, when all music was modal, distinguished the emotive characters of the four basic minor modes. However, Larson points out certain technical features of the Adagio that allow many to hear it as sad.

However, we also project other meanings, both historical and personal, onto it. The "their song" of all four of my grandparents happened to be Irving Berlin's "Always." To them, it was The Loveliest Song Ever because it reminded them of their courtships. In a way, this conquering of a culture becomes a little easier with the rise of mass media, which can move thousands at once. Ever since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death, at least, radio program directors have reached for Barber's Adagio as an expression of public grief. We also heard it after the deaths of Einstein, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Princess Grace, the 9/11 victims, and (in the United States, at least) Princess Diana. Elephant Man and Platoon almost turned the piece into a cliché ripe for lampoon, shown by its popping up on episodes of Seinfeld and The Simpsons. Larson understands the problem with the "go-to" properties of the score, but so far, the Adagio seems to have withstood it.

Larson gives us a swift history of this, but he takes a step further and analyzes the effect of the piece on individuals apart, in some sense, from the culture at large. He uses his own family as his example. Larson, primarily known as a memoirist, finds himself on relatively known ground here. However, it's just these parts of the book that have proven the most controversial. They certainly confused the New Yorker reviewer, who seemed to have no idea what they were doing there. I admit (and probably Larson would, too) that this isn't a logical argument. However, it does provide a powerful example of how we as individuals attach meanings to music. Mostly, individual meanings differ. I, for one, have never heard the Adagio as sad or, for that matter – despite the evidence of the score – in the key of B-flat minor. For me, the tonality of the piece "hovers," never settling, until the end, to a tonic "home" – to my ear, F major. Furthermore, I find it as "sad" as the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia, also in a minor mode, but more passionate and meditative than sad. There's also a quality of, to paraphrase Michael Kennedy, shaking hands across centuries. Barber's Adagio reminds me a lot of stile antico motets, with their chains of suspensions. Also, I may have been influenced by a college music-history prof who suggested a passage in Virgil's Georgics about an ever-increasing wave as the inspiration of the piece. Given Barber's prodigious range of reading across several languages, this view persuades me, although of course I don't know. As far as my own life goes, my griefs and losses have never led me to any piece of music. In fact, during those times, I don't listen to music at all, because it distances me from the object of grief or loss, precisely what I didn't want to let go of. Indeed, at those times, it strikes me as a betrayal to give myself over to music rather than to the person I've lost. This may arise from my practical involvement in the craft. I return to music after I've largely finished grieving. Nevertheless, I can look past my personal circumstance to take in Larson's general point about the way people do attach meanings (often quite specific) to a piece of music as well as (and this is just as important) what in the music allows them to do so.

Finally, Larson considers Barber's own sadness. Ironically, Barber wrote the piece at one of the happiest times of his life, in the early bloom of his relationship with Menotti. However, Barber had within him the seeds of melancholy, which in his later years blossomed into full-fledged depression and alcoholism. To some extent, this tendency gnawed within him, even as a successful young man who had found his romantic companion. Menotti reports that composing was a way for Barber to keep his depression at bay, because he was at his happiest composing. Once Barber finished a piece, however, he to some extent turned against it, as failing to fully realize his inspiration. But at least there was always the next piece. This cycle continued until the early Sixties, with the failure of his grand opera Antony and Cleopatra and the savage critical backlash unleashed against Barber (who, incidentally, had just four years before won the Pulitzer Prize for his Piano Concerto). Barber moved to Italy, shut himself up, drank, and suffered through a breakup with Menotti. He composed fitfully thereafter. Larson is at his best here. He has had to overcome Barber's notorious reticence and his avoidance of interviews. One of the fullest accounts of Barber's personality, for example, comes from a profile on Menotti. Most of the composer's letters tend to chat without giving anything personal away. I especially appreciate the fact that Larson doesn't treat Barber's homosexuality generically (my pet peeve with many so-called "queer studies"). He allows Barber his individuality. Unlike Britten – especially the Britten operas – Barber's homosexuality probably didn't influence or give rise to any piece of music he wrote, including the opera Vanessa, which Larson convincingly argues for as a dramatic representation of the Barber-Menotti relationship (in any case, Menotti, not Barber, wrote the libretto). However, regret, stoicism, and controlled ardor fill quite a few of Barber's scores. Personality subsumes sexual preference, although it may be influenced by it.

In the end, Barber disliked hearing his Adagio, which he felt had overshadowed his other music. When he had to encounter it in concert, he listened for mistakes in the playing and seemed to enjoy himself when he heard them. He wouldn't allow it at his memorial, although he felt more kindly toward his choral arrangement of it as an Agnus Dei. He needn't have worried. Almost everything he wrote has entered standard repertory. I'd be willing to bet everything he wrote that he permitted to be published has been recorded, as well as quite a few unpublished works. What shocks me, but doesn't surprise me, is that his home town (West Chester, Pennsylvania) seemed to have no idea who the hell he was – probably our most-played composer, along with Copland and Ives. But, of course, most United Statespeople don't know their own concert music, even Copland and Ives.

This book, like Barbara Heyman's bio and Peter Dickinson's Samuel Barber Remembered (read R. James Tobin's review), occupies its own space in Barber studies. It manages to encompass several things at once – not only specifically related to the composer, but to our interactions with music itself. Above all, it shows that music for most people is almost never "just music." Thus, the book both explicates and transcends the occasion of inquiry. In this last respect, Larson plumbs unfamiliar territory. It turns out that writing about our emotional engagement with a work of art – all art, really, but particularly music – may constitute the most difficult exploration of all.

Copyright © 2011 by Steve Schwartz.