Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Saddest Song

Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings is, in my opinion, the most heartbreaking piece of music ever written. It has been used magnificently in a number of films to evoke a devastating mood, including Platoon, The Elephant Man, and Amelie among many others.

In 2004, Barber's masterpiece was voted the "saddest classical" work ever written by listeners of the BBC's Today program, ahead of "Dido's Lament" from Dido and ├ćneas by Henry Purcell, the "Adagietto" from Gustav Mahler's 5th symphony, "Metamorphosen" by Richard Strauss and "Gloomy Sunday" as sung by Billie Holiday.

Because of the overall arc of despair, then hope, sadness then acceptance in the piece, I find it the perfect auditory depiction of the human condition, and especially of our modern world with all its joy and madness and constant, pressing change we must embrace or perish. A music version of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' Five Stages of Grief; Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

Here, Leonard Slatkin Conducts the BBC Orchestra on September 15 2001 in honor of those who lost their lives a few days prior. Visuals from BBC's 'Last Night of the Proms' and ABC's 'Report from ground zero'.

National Public Radio's All Things Considered, had this to say: "In November 1938, conductor Arturo Toscanini led the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the premiere performance of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." The concert was broadcast from New York to a radio audience of millions across America.

Celebrated for its fragile simplicity and emotion, the "Adagio" might have seemed an odd match for Toscanini, known for his power and drama as a conductor. But according to Mortimer Frank, author of Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years, despite the director's force and intensity, he was capable of "wonderful delicacy and tenderness and gentleness."

The year 1938 was a time of tumult. America was still recovering from the Depression and Hitler's Germany was pushing the world towards war. Toscanini himself had only recently settled in America after fleeing fascist Italy. The importance of the broadcast performance during this time is noted by Joe Horowitz, author of Understanding Toscanini: "Toscanini's concerts in New York... once he was so closely identified with the opposition to Mussolini, the opposition to Hitler — these were the peak public performances in the history of classical music in America. I don't think any concerts before or since excited such an intense emotional response, and I don't think any concerts before or since evoked such an intense sense of moral mission."

The "Adagio for Strings" was written by American composer Samuel Barber when he was in his 20s. With a tense melodic line and taut harmonies, the composition is considered by many to be the most popular of all 20th-century orchestral works.

"You never are in any doubt about what this piece is about, says music historian Barbara Heyman. "There's a kind of sadness and poetry about it. It has a melodic gesture that reaches an arch, like a big sigh... and then exhales and fades off into nothingness."

Barber also wrote a chorale version for Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) that I find even more haunting than the string version because of the intricacies and complexities of the human voice. Here it is performed by The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge,UK, Directed by Richard Marlow.

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