Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is one of those classical music one-hit wonders people may recognize without knowing they recognize it.
It’s the piece American media whips out for occasions of national mourning. Oliver Stone used the piece prominently for the film Platoon. It was played at the funeral of Grace Kelley, and I’m sure if I perform my due diligence, a Google search would confirm my suspicion that the piece was performed around the time of 9/11. I won’t do that due diligence because if I were a music director at that time, I would have had an orchestra rehearsing it.
An entire book, The Saddest Music Ever Written by Thomas Larson, focuses entirely on the piece.
What people may not know is the Adagio is actually part of a larger work, the String Quartet, Op. 11. Barber would not write another piece labeled as a “string quartet”.
My introduction to the Adagio was on the Kronos Quartet album, Winter Was Hard. The piece concludes the album, offering a sonic cleanse after the intensity of the Schnittke Third Quartet which precedes it.
Needless to say, I fell in love with the piece, and in my teenaged precociousness, I sought out the original work from which the Adagio was extracted. The only available recording at the time — we’re talking 1988, here — was by the Concord String Quartet, which paired the String Quartet, Op. 11 with one of Barber’s vocal work, Dover Beach, alongside George Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 7.
So I special ordered the cassette, listened to it and … wondered how the two halves of the piece relate to each other.
The fast, first movement, which is also reprised as a coda to its more popular second movement, isn’t really memorable. Where the second movement has that floating, off-kilter elegiac melody, the first movement seems to be just an intellectual exercise.
The second movement feels like a dialogue between the individual parts, where the first movement seems like the players are parroting each other, if not downright all saying the same thing. (I’m not entirely wrong — the quartet opens with a melody played in unison.)
I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but Barber didn’t seem to know what he was doing with that first movement, all the more evidenced by its return at the end of the piece.
In a way, it’s understandable how the Adagio has eclipsed its parent work. The rest of the quartet feels like an after-thought.
And it’s probably this underdog status that makes me seek out whatever recordings I can of the entire work, of which there aren’t many.
Currently, Emerson Quartet’s excellent American Originals album is the most readily available to contain the entire quartet. In my crate digging, I’ve run across vinyl LPs of Beaux Arts Quartet (paired with David Diamond’s String Quartet No. 4), the Cleveland Quartet (like the Emerson, paired with some quartets by Charles Ives) and that original cassette, the Concord.
I did take the score for the entire Op. 11 and program it into my digital audio work station, which you can listen to at the Empty Ensemble web site.
What I discovered is the first movement is in a very traditional sonata form, complete with modulation in the exposition and a recapitulation. Now that I can pinpoint the parts of the quartet, I’ve developed a better understanding of it.
That doesn’t stop the work from being unwieldy, but I can empathize with what Barber was trying to achieve. Portions of the quartet can get pretty thorny, and while Barber works in a tonal framework, he’s not beholden to it.
It’s those moments of discord arising from its spirited pace that makes me like the first movement just a bit more, and it certainly makes the second stand out.
You probably won’t fall in love with the entirety of the Op. 11, but at the very least, it’s a fascinating study on how a piece of music can exert its identity at the cost of others.