Adagio for Strings, by Samuel Barber, as performed by The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
It’s just about the most popular and instantly recognizable collection of strings we’ve all been graced with. We’ve heard it in movies, documentaries, TV shows, and riffs of it in almost as many songs, popular and otherwise. But having said that, it surely does stand on its own. The first time you hear it, no matter the context, I’m entirely confident you appreciate it just as fully.
So of course the song feels resoundingly sad, and goodness knows I do love some melancholy in my music. But there’s far more than melancholy going on here. There’s some wonder, some hope, some toil, some frustration, some reward, some delight, and some peace. Yet above all that, there really is sadness, and it would be unspeakable if not for music like this.
And I get the feeling Samuel Barber, who was just about exactly my own age at the time he completed Adagio, was so on top of his game that he was able to compose a piece so technically capable, yet so entirely accessible, and so emotionally unavoidable, as to exist safely above even the possibility of criticism. Basically, I’ve never heard anybody say they didn’t adore it.
And I’m no expert on strings, but it doesn’t take one to understand that the choir highlighting the end of the middle section is playing near the bounds of its varied comfort level, and beautifully so. Followed by just a stunningly apt moment of reflection before we ease back into the melody’s original lovely ascent. It feels like we’ve climbed Everest, and we’ve seen the view so few get to see - but the beauty was not only in that view, it was in the entire journey.
It’s the most beautiful showcase of a melody founded entirely on simplicity and honesty, born of an era so troubled yet so glorious. The wonder of Adagio is that it doesn’t even feel like a stretch to say we hear all of that in it.
This song is for Jen.