Adagio for Strings (Barber 1936) [5:44] 13.5Mb

Where does one even start with this?

Beloved of funerals the world over and much included in a million film soundtracks, this piece of music is one of the masterpieces of 20th century composition. It's not actually a piece of music in its own right - it is the second movement of Samuel Barber's String Quartet No. 1 in B minor - but it's so well-known apart from the longer composition that it may as well be considered on its own merit.

The most famous story about it is that the conductor Toscanini received the score from Barber and promptly returned it without a word, which led Barner to believe that he had been snubbed. It was only later that he found out that the conductor was so impressed with the piece that he had committed it to memory and managed to conduct it later without reference to the score again. The story may seem apocryphal, but it is apparently true and it's easy to see why. For a start it is not a very hard piece of music to play (even I managed to record this in a day) and the arc the music follows makes it sound like it is bisected where the strings reach their highest point on fortissimo-forte, which gives the impression that you need only remember the first half of it. Of course this is all nonsense as it doesn't really follow that path at all, but it gives a deeply pleasing cycle of build, tension, release and resolution that places it in a league of its own somewhere.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this music, though, is that it was written by a man in his mid-twenties. Its stark simplicity tells of a maturity in composition that a lesser talent may have covered in ornamental sop. There is very little flesh on the bones of this music, in itself a telling part of the emotional palette the composer used. Written in 1936, Barber saw the war coming in Europe. Whether or not he meant it in that context, having Toscanini - the Italian émigré who fled his native land from Mussolinni's oppression - conduct the premiere could hardly have rendered that performance more poignant if there had been a concerted effort to do so. Realising the true beauty of complete melancholy is what propels this piece of music into the realms of genius.

Although scored for a small string section, I've used a far greater range of strings here to make a slightly denser texture than usual. Some lines are doubled (or more) by playing multiple sounds on top of one another, whilst some lines are taken up by one string voice which are then led into another.

This is also available on YouTube.

Instrumentation: Mellotron M400 Playing