Sorrow: Barber

griefPain. Sorrow. Sadness. Grief. These are sentiments that are expressed most poignantly by almost every musical genre. I think people turn to music because sorrow is such an intense emotion, it is difficult to process. Sometimes it isn’t enough to cry, sob, lay in bed for hours, or explain the feeling of sorrow in words. We must listen to, write, or perform a piece of music to reflect our deepest feelings. For me, music can bring about a certain clarity and can help me ride the waves of emotion instead of let them crash over me.

There is a lot of very sad Classical music. In his Ted Talk, Benjamin Zander discussed how Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 in E minor helped an unlikely audience member mourn the death of his brother for the first time. Until then, he was unable to cry for his brother. It is on this emotion that Classical music probably speaks to the most number of people.

Samuel BarberAdagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is one of the saddest, most beautiful, cathartic pieces I know. Composed in 1938, Adagio for Strings has appeared in at least 10 movies, many TV shows, and even video games. Its very simple form, harmony, and instrumentation (just violin, viola, cello and bass) make it a piece that is very easy to connect with. It is a great meditation piece because it is the same melody repeated over and over, just with changing texture and dynamics. In musical terms, texture is how many instruments are playing at once. In this piece, sometimes it is just the first violins, or just the violas that are playing at a time. The first note, for example, features just a few violin players.

This brings about a sense of vulnerability and anticipation. The listener may subconsciously think, “if there is only one note and no harmony, how will I know if the piece is happy or sad, or how it will end?” The form of the piece is an arch, with the dynamic getting louder to the point of climax, then dying down to a sleepy resignation. It is perhaps reflective of the last two stages of grief cycle, from depression to acceptance. There may be some anger and bargaining in there as well, especially during the climax section. As the emotions get more intense, the music becomes louder, the strings change the direction of their bows more abruptly, and there is clearly a feeling of anger and asking “why?”

I’ve always been struck that this piece ends on a major chord, but it is not the one we expect. But aren’t major chords supposed to make us feel happy? Well this one doesn’t!

The musical term for this is half cadence. Here’s a simple harmony lesson: every chord in a chord progression is numbered, from 1 to 7, depending on which notes it has in it. Many chord progressions will use a one chord, then a four chord, then a five chord, and then go back to the one chord. The five chord has notes in it that make us want to hear the one chord again. If we don’t hear the one chord again, it can be a little disturbing. Well that is just what Samuel Barber did to us on this last chord. It signifies something very important: that even though we can express and process through our sorrow, it may never fully go away.

I am so happy to be writing again after moving my family to another state over the last couple months. After sadness/sorrow, there are two more emotions I’d like to discuss and then I’ll move on. I’m glad you’re here reading and (hopefully) leaving comments.

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6 thoughts on “Sorrow: Barber

  1. excellent post, justin. so glad to have you writing again. thanks for highlighting this piece, and for reminding us that there are some things only music can do for us.

  2. Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings is emotionally devastating. Even the very first chord is emotionally charged whereas we normally expect music to appeal because of the relationships between surrounding features. I’m always impressed by the way he maintains interest throughout the piece.

    He wrote a composition whilst attached to the Airforce. It’s a musical picture that portrays, amongst other things, moonlight on the ocean during a night flight.

    • Welcome, John! I hadn’t heard that about the moonlight and the ocean, but I definitely hear that in the music. Thanks for that! The first time I heard the orchestral version of this piece, I was snow shoeing in the Rocky Mountains with family. The landscape there was incredible as well. Of course, the very first time I heard it was during a performance of the Santa Clara Vanguard Drum & Bugle Corps in July of 2000. Here’s a link to a studio recording of that: http://youtu.be/xENXC9E0SVg

      • Thanks for your interest. When you suggested listening to the track I thought ‘Oh no’ and yet it really, really works brilliantly. The arranger also deserves credit for not letting the work go on for too long. Strings are another ball game altogether.

      • I’ve often thought “oh no” as well because it seems like arrangers for Drum Corps or marching band tend to rip a great piece of music to shreds and think they’ve made it “more exciting.” But sometimes they do a great service to the composition.

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