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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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.