Adagio for Strings
violins, violas, cellos, basses
notes by Chris Myers
First performance: November 5, 1938, New York. Arturo Toscanini, conductor.
At the conclusion of the first rehearsal of the Adagio for Strings, conductor Arturo Toscanini summed up the work in three words: “semplice e bella.”
Simple and beautiful.
This piece strips music to its bare essentials: a single melodic line atop a chordal accompaniment. Such an exposed texture is deceptively challenging for a composer; each individual note is suddenly of vital significance.
The key to the Adagio’s emotional impact lies in its harmonic tension. A sustained melodic line sits exposed and alone for two long beats until the harmony finally lends its support. When the melody does move, it does so in diatonic steps, striving again and again to climb, only to fall back as it fails to reach its goal. Yet each time, it manages to stretch just a bit closer. Beneath this struggle, the lower strings provide harmonic support, but as in the great Renaissance motets, the individual voices rarely move at the same time; movement in one voice creates delayed reactions in the others. This uneasy chain of harmonic suspensions never fully resolves until, after some six minutes of struggle, the lines finally unite in a moment of transcendent grandeur that leaves the music gasping for breath in the pause that follows. A moment of silence, and we find ourselves back where we started. But the momentum can never be regained, and the strains fade into silence.
The Adagio for Strings, originally the second movement of Barber’s String Quartet, was composed in 1936 when the composer, living in Austria with Menotti, encountered a passage from Virgil’s Georgics:
A breast-shaped curve of wave begins to whiten
And rise above the surface, then rolling on
Gathers and gathers until it reaches land
Huge as a mountain and crashes among the rocks
With a prodigious roar, and what was deep
Comes churning up from the bottom in mighty swirls
Born in the chaos of a continent on the brink of apocalypse, the Adagio has gone on to establish a firm foothold in the American consciousness as the musical embodiment of communal grief. It was played at the funerals of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and Grace Kelly. Three days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Jackie arranged for the National Symphony Orchestra to perform it to an empty hall in his honor; a recording of the performance was released to radio and television stations, who adopted it as an unofficial anthem of mourning during subsequent weeks. Oliver Stone used it as the theme from his landmark film Platoon. In recent years, it has gained a second life among electronica musicians, having been remixed by artists ranging from William Orbit to Paul Oakenfold and Tiësto.
After witnessing the premiere, critic Olin Downes tried to explain the work’s stunning impact: “We have here honest music by a musician not striving for pretentious effect, not behaving as a writer would who, having a clear, short, popular word in hand for his purpose, got the dictionary and fished out a long one. This is the product of a musically creative nature and an earnest student who leaves nothing undone to achieve something as perfect in mass and detail as his craftsmanship permits.”
In other words, it's simple. And beautiful.
Copyright © 2012 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.