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.


Anxiety never stops: Barber

The last movement of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto portrays nervous anxiety, even panic. The title of the movement, “presto in moto perpetuo” translates “very fast perpetual motion.” It’s like riding a wild roller coaster with no hope of getting off. The violinist literally plays fast sixteenth notes (4 notes per beat, 170 beats per minute (BPM), that’s like 10 notes per second) the whole movement. Four minutes straight. In order to achieve this, the performer must practice the sections over and over again at a slow tempo and work his way up to 170 BPM. This can take dozens, even hundreds of hours to perfect the way the violinist in this clip has.

The fast-moving action in this piece reminds me of a great chase scene out of a movie. Actually, the music sounds similar to the soundtrack from one of the recent Harry Potter movies. The feel is chaotic, frantic, dissonant, high, fast and loud. You can even hear the horns in this clip sounding the hunt, just as they did for centuries in Western Europe. This  is the last 30 seconds at the climax:

How does Barber illicit such a visceral reaction? The fast, perpetually moving notes is one effect, but so is the near atonality of the violin part. Atonality is just as it sounds: an absence of tonality. This means the violin isn’t really sticking to the 8-note scale of a key. Instead, it is playing any one of a 12-note scale at any time. This confuses our ears because we don’t know where the music is headed. Music is the most dissonant when it is atonal. The notes are not random by any means, and if the music were slower, we could probably discern a recognizable, though dissonant melody. But in this case, you won’t be humming this piece later today. It is the feel of chaos and frantic anxiety that sticks with you. But hopefully the excitement of the chase does, too!