Lenten music Friday: Barber Adagio

Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” would be played at the state funerals of both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

Samuel_Barber Thomas Larson called Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” “the saddest music ever written,” and he may be right.

NPR describes the premiere performance on 5 November 1938 with conductor Arturo Toscanini leading the NBC Symphony Orchestra, broadcast to millions of radio listeners.

From This Day in History:

Adagio for Strings had begun not as a freestanding piece, but as one movement of Barber’s 1936 String Quartet No. 1, Opus 11. When that movement provoked a mid-composition standing ovation at its premiere performance, Barber decided to create the orchestral adaptation that he would soon send to Toscanini.

In later years, the piece would be played at the state funerals of both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, taking its place as what one observer has called “the semi-official music of mourning.”

It is an adaptable piece, which has been arranged for solo organ, clarinet choir, woodwind band, and, as Agnus Dei, for chorus with optional organ or piano accompaniment, among others.

9/11 tribute. Leonard Slatkin, conductor. LAST NIGHT OF THE PROMS AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL IN ENGLAND – 2001.

September 11: 10th-anniversary memorial concert, Steven Schneider, organist. St. James’ Episcopal Church, Marietta, GA.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

2 thoughts on “Lenten music Friday: Barber Adagio”

  1. The first time I ever heard this particular piece was around age 11 or 12 when I first saw the movie Platoon. Ever since, it’s always made me sad and seemed rather ominous. (I remember one year at college, there was a janitor who worked in the early morning and whose cart had a radio tuned to a local classical music station; one day I walked in, nervous about a final exam, and there was that music waiting…) It’s so gorgeously composed and performed–I have a recording conducted by Leonard Bernstein that I particularly admire–but it’s always been associated with an intense sadness for me and, I see, many people.

  2. I never really associated it with sadness until shortly after 9/11/2001, when one of the local stations (IIRC) played it that Friday evening, when the suggestion was that we all light a candle and step outside with it, in memory.

    That was actually the first time I cried over the event. The biggest thing I was thinking of at that moment was the student who told me that “More than 3000 people died. That’s *more than live in my home town*” and that really brought the scale of it home to me.

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