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Inspiration & Influence: Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Op. 11

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Op. 11 easily ranks among the most popular classical works of the twentieth century.

Often when a piece reaches this level of recognition (a certain canon comes to mind) , professional musicians love to loathe it. Too many performances, too many butchered renditions . . .

Über-popularity hasn’t squelched my love for the Barber Adagio.

It’s one of those pieces that, should it come on the radio, will make me stop whatever I’m doing to listen. Through simple harmonies, rhythms, and structure, the Adagio powerfully distills the essence of hopeful yearning; and I am moved every time I hear a good performance of it. Former NY Times critic Olin Downes describes this piece well: “We have here honest music, by an honest musician, not striving for pretentious effect, not behaving as a writer would who, having a clear, short, popular word handy for his purpose, got the dictionary and fished out a long one.”

Music doesn’t usually conjure images or stories in my mind, but this piece is an exception. I imagine someone alone in an expansive place, trying to deal with a difficult reality. At the point of the cathartic climax (around 6:35-7:10 in the recording below), he decides to accept whatever it is; but instead of the utter despair he expected he finds hope. At the end, he turns around to find that he is not alone — and that, in fact, he never was.

Perhaps that’s one of the greatest beauties of this music. While our reaction to it may seem intensely personal, we need only watch what happens when a roomful of people hear it. We aren’t as alone as we think we are.

More info via NPR:



1 Graham Burnette, Palo Alto, CA { 01.24.11 at 8:53 pm }

The popular modern classical music seems to be connected in my mind with film scores – the best is often used to add emotion to an already excellent film. The Adagio is an excellent example – used in the climax scene of Platoon, and to great effect in Elephant Man.

2 rushyama { 01.25.11 at 11:31 am }

Yes, and I think that its use in film is a main reason for the popularity of the Adagio. I heard the piece first simply as music, and I’ve wondered if my conception would be different had I first encountered it as part of a film score.

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