Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings amply demonstrates two principles: Some of the greatest ideas are essentially quite simple, and not everything popular is junk.
He originally wrote it as the second movement of a string quartet in 1936, but within two years arranged it for string orchestra. In this form, it became not only his most popular work, but also an unofficial American anthem of mourning, played after the deaths of Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy.
The two versions, string quartet and string orchestra, make their own separate effect. The string quartet version, as you would expect, is intimate and occurs in the context of other movements. Not surprising for an artist with wide literary interests, Barber found initial inspiration in a passage from Vergil's Georgics describing how a rivulet gradually becomes a large river. Although the idea doesn't limit the Adagio's emotional meaning, you can see how it influences the overall shape of the work – a long arch beginning quietly, gradually building to an overwhelming climax, and winding down to a quiet end. Barber constructs the long-lined, spiralling theme from musical sequence – that is, a group of notes is repeated slightly higher (as in this case) or lower. Sequence is the most elementary form of variation, and most composers learn to use it sparingly. Barber builds an entire piece from it.
Composers like Aaron Copland, William Schuman, Roy Harris, and Ned Rorem – not all of them sympathetic to Barber's music in general – look at this work and shake their heads, wondering how he pulled it off. They fall back on phrases like "finely felt," "poetic," "nothing phoney," "a love affair." There's no real complication to the Adagio, no technique or unusual turn of harmony that holds the secret of its success. One cannot even pick one passage over another, any more than you can say one point makes the beauty of an arch. This is a masterpiece.
Copyright © 1995 by Steve Schwartz.