Barber: Symphony No. 1

Samuel Barber’s music is some of the most emotionally intense, rhythmic, beautiful, satisfying, heart-breaking, disturbing, and powerful music I’ve ever heard. You may have heard his most famous piece, Adagio for Strings. While the entire symphony is worth listening to, I will spend the most time on movement three, entitled “Andante tranquillo.”

Before I begin, I have a two disclaimers. First, in an earlier post, I mentioned that in order to appreciate Classical music, one must use one’s imagination. I am presenting one version of what I imagine the music evokes. I would love to get your impressions, too. In general, I imagine a main character, a subject, whose experiences are being described by the music. If it is not a character, then it is an emotional journey, a picture, or simply a mood or atmosphere. Second, I want to apologize for starting my entries about Classical music with a piece some listeners may find too intense and depressing. This work speaks to me too deeply to be overlooked.

Symphony No. 1 starts with very broad statements, as though we are seeing the landscape Barber is painting from a high altitude. It doesn’t take long for us to descend from this height to reveal certain inconsistencies in the scene, as though something isn’t right. The uneasiness gives way to paranoia as more and more questions are raised. By the end of the movement, all fears are confirmed in a violent way.

Movement two transitions without missing a beat into comic whimsicality. It is a blatant denial of what has just happened. I can imagine a six-year-old girl with a wide grin closing her eyes, plugging her ears, and singing “la la la la la la – I’m not listening!” This movement is about a flurry of activity: running, entertainment, diversion, and even thrill-seeking. And there are moments that are incredibly diverting, thrilling, and possibly dangerous. The climax of this movement is some kind of injury which puts an end to the fun (warning: this clip is loud!)

The subject must now face the feelings he has been avoiding.

Movement three, “Andante tranquillo,” begins with a beautiful, warm atmosphere with a lush major chord in the strings. The melody in the oboe is beautiful but is only half in the key. 

It consists of many tri-tones and half-step intervals which create a haunting tension. An interval is the distance between two pitches. If the distance is too close, like that of a half-step interval, the music sounds tense. The same exists with a tri-tone, where the interval is half way between octaves. There is a brief interlude of reflection and uncertainty followed by another statement of the melody, this time in the strings. The melody is played twice as fast – the musical term for that is diminution. The drama increases as the line spirals higher and higher and with greater passion. 

As the music reaches peak intensity, the orchestra personifies a kind of wailing. But there is power in the pain, like a cleansing fire. It is like human suffering coming in contact with a glorious, powerful God. Trombones dominate the texture in this section. In Western music history, especially in opera, trombones were used to depict the divine. The trombone has a transcendent power that few other instruments can match. 

The final movement takes one last time to determine if it is possible to escape the disturbing truth that was revealed in the first movement, having run from it in movement two and mourning it in movement three. In the end, there is a finality of resignation, perhaps death. If it is death, than it is a dramatic, Shakespearean death! It could be the death of a person, idea, hope, or experience. This clip is not actually the end of the piece – it actually gets more exciting from here. 

Again, I would love to get your impressions on this music. Please reply in the comment section and feel free to share this post with anyone who may be interested by using the share buttons below. Thank you for reading.

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3 thoughts on “Barber: Symphony No. 1

  1. Wonderful post, as always Justin. This music is truly inspired and draws out emotions in me as I listen. I’ve got to work on the imagination piece–it’s difficult for me to create a story to go with the music.

    • Thanks, Dad. I don’t think you have to have a story in order to appreciate it, I just like to have one when I can. I will often set the music to memories from childhood, or tie the sounds to other senses, like touch, taste, or smell. Some of Samuel Barber’s music reminds me of being dizzy and can even make me nauseous, for example.

  2. I love the little bite size pieces to sample as we walk thru the movements with your thoughts! Very cool use of integrating audio samples, pictures, gifs, etc.. I’m lovin it! I love that you went with such an intense piece, no need to add the disclaimer 🙂

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