Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) Adagio for Strings: "Semplice e bella*"

A little off topic.

The first time I remember ever hearing Barber's Adagio for Strings was when it was played at the National Cathedral during the memorial service following the attacks of September 11th, 2001.

I probably had heard it before, certainly while watching Platoon once or twice, but it had never registered with me—I just took it as part of the soundtrack. But in those rarefied surreal days, it became the music of the times—sorrowful, elegiac, mourning, poignant, aching, touching, forgiving—the distilled essence of tragedy and human frailty.

I must have listened to it five hundred times in the months following September 11th, over and over again—during that weird awful period when time stood still, each cloudless blue day melding into the next, the days and nights only marked by the transit of fighter jets far overhead.

Adagio lost its visceral connection with that time for me through the years; but I still listen to it from time to time, and am always struck by its utter...perfection.

Samuel Barber, who bore a resemblance to my father at a similar age, composed Adagio in his twenties, and created one of the few pieces of classical music of the twentieth century to have a lasting legacy.

I don't have the musical vocabulary to describe this accurately, but about 3/4 of the way through, there is a moment where something is expressed in music that I cannot find words for—forgiveness, reconciliation, grace, longing, release; some sorrow or mournfulness expressed earlier is resolved into pure bliss. Without fail, it brings tears to my eyes.

I have heard it said that Adagio is our national song of mourning; it was played for President Kennedy's funeral. I do not know if this is true. I do know that to my mind, it is a perfect piece of music.

By the way: Samuel Barber was a good Irishman, and longtime companion of Gian Carlo Menotti.
*Arturo Toscanini, 1938: "Simple and beautiful."

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