The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” by Thomas Larson. Pegasus Books. 262 pages
It’s the soundtrack at the climax of Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and was played in countless memorial services for the victims of 9/11. You may not know the title or its composer, but you know—everyone on this planet knows—the pensive, foreboding tune: those ever-rising violins as if a spirit is ascending, the delicate fade into sorrow beyond verbal expression, the feeling of tragic grandeur it evokes. Listen on YouTube if you can’t place it. The last time I looked, the BBC orchestra’s version, conducted by Leonard Slatkin only four days after 9/11, had about four million hits between its two posts.
This “slow, minor-key lament,” writes Thomas Larson , “evokes a deep sadness in those who hear it. . . . Over a near seventy-five year history, the piece has grown in value because of its aesthetic beauty and its pragmatic use. Like the English hymn ‘Amazing Grace,’ the Adagio is an icon of American grief. . . . No sadder music has ever been written.”
Anyone who loves music realizes this work expresses no single thing, no one truth, and yet there’s no mistaking its honesty. What’s more, the work taps undiscovered feelings, feelings we may not know we have until the work unlocks them. If there’s one piece in the American classical canon that lends its voice to help us grieve losses of which we are conflicted or unaware—personal, national, universal—it’s Barber’s Adagio. . . . As you listen, you’ll go down to where the darkest emotions reside. . . .
It captures the sorrow and pity of tragic death: listening to it, we are Mother Mary, come alive—holding the lifeless Christ on our laps, one arm bracing the slumped head, the other offering him to the ages. The Adagio is a sound shrine to music’s ability to evoke emotion. Its elegiac descent is among the most moving expressions of grief in any art. The snail-like tempo, the constrained melodic line, its rise and fall, the periodic rests, the harmonic repetition, the harmonic color, the uphill slog, the climactic moment of its peaked eruption—all are crafted together into one magnificent effect: listeners, weeping in anguish, bear the glory and gravity of their grief.
A prodigy from small-town Pennsylvania, Samuel Barber was summering in Austria in 1936 with his Italian lover when he created, at age twenty six, the Adagio. As he wrote the music that leaves us “tribally wrung out” he was probably the happiest he would ever be, observes Larson. Though Barber went on to win two Pulitzer prizes and to become wealthy from his operas and classical compositions, his middle age was plagued by depression and alcoholism.
The Saddest Music Ever Written, structured itself like a musical composition—Prelude, Part One, First Interlude, Part Two, Second Interlude, Part Three, Postlude—is intended as an “intimate history” and aspires to a resonance similar to Barber’s Adagio. The book is an intriguing hybrid narrative: an analysis and history of the composition; the story of Barber and his career; and Larson’s memoir of his own depressive family. The eras’ relevant cultural and social histories are interwoven into these strands.
This fusion of unusual content and thematic structure works, a postmodern approach that reflects the pervasiveness of memoir and the growing importance of personal narratives in our otherwise narratively fractured time. Memoir is one human voice speaking, giving its truth. We understand and appreciate that a person wrote the Adagio for Strings, that one of his listeners composed The Saddest Music Ever Written, that the personal restores relevance to history, that a writer’s interest is personal, and that artistic expression is always intensely personal and therefore so must the artist-writer-performer be.
In exploring his family’s history, especially that of his embittered father’s traumatic wartime service and frustrating career, and whom he imagines being touched by the Adagio, Larson depicts the generation that first heard Barber’s lament. (Many of them listened on radio over a long weekend in April 1945 to its first, spontaneous airings—a recording of Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC symphony for its premier—after Franklin Roosevelt’s sudden death near the war’s end.) Arguing for the Greatest Generation’s sadness from various losses, personal and historical, Larson burrows toward the truth of a universal human sorrow that explains the Adagio’s existence and its global reception.
You look forward to Larson’s memoir chapters. Just before you doubt their relevance, or lose the thread, he returns more directly to Barber or his music. And you realize that Larson’s deeply personal stories reflect how humans actually experience art and that they’ve deepened your understanding—of Barber, of the Adagio, and of something about sunny America’s unfathomable sadness, which strains toward expression in this classical masterpiece by a self-destructive genius.
The Saddest Music Ever Written will be read and studied by diverse audiences for years because the book’s underlying concept, its story, and its execution are impressive. Larson is also author of The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative, reviewed earlier.