Here's an article that was published in an online magazine called Catapult. This was written for an issue on music called "Tuning In". Check out the entire issue at www.catapultmagazine.com/issues/backIssue.cfm?issueid=61
Fellow Mountainview staff member, Kelly Crull also has an article in this issue.
My particular article recounted various encounters with a piece of music by Samuel Barber called "Adagio for Strings". Read below for the article or find it on the Catapult website.
By way of introduction
Many people think of it as “the song that’s played in Platoon.” I think of it as “the song that composers select for their funeral.”
Let it be said at the outset that we’re not talking about just any version of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Specifically, we’re talking about Leonard Bernstein’s interpretation. Bernstein does something for Barber’s Adagio that even Barber himself couldn’t have done. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but a certain character in Lost in Yonkers would say it has to do with Bernstein possessing a thing called “moxy.” True, Bernstein slows the tempo down slightly (compared to other interpretations), but the power of Bernstein’s interpretation is not due solely to its elongated pacing. There’s something else going on here, something spiritual. I didn’t personally see Bernstein’s performance of this piece when it was recorded but his interpretation is so evocative I can close my eyes and (almost prophetically) capture a vision of him painting the air with his baton. I’d be willing to bet this vision is pretty accurate because, when I listen to it, I’m simultaneously ushered into identification with the human race as a whole and a single human face in particular.
Let it also be said that you need to listen to Barber’s Adagio at a higher volume than a song like “Achy Breaky Heart.” The latter song is merely a parody of grief, so its landscape is straight, flat and rural-Midwestern. Adagio, on the other hand, begins and ends with notes so soft you don’t know they’re there unless the stereo is turned up. To be sure, the ascent from valley to peak in Barber’s Adagio follows a gradual clime, yet that doesn’t change the fact that the valley’s altitude is well-below sea level while the peak reaches the moon. Indeed, the contrast between valley and peak is polemic, so even the most ardent musical travelers find the song’s terrain difficult to handle. After journeying across dissonant sharpness you reach the summit: breathless, heart pounding and soul weeping cathartically. This in itself is reward enough, but what makes the trek even more enriching is the descent: on the last note you breathe a sigh of relief. Strike that: “sigh” isn’t the right word. It’s more like…hmmm. In Greek the word to describe this would be the onomatopoetic ephphatha. I’m not sure what word one would use in English.
Upon listening to Adagio, something profound happens to two kinds of people (all kinds of people): The despairing person senses that someone at last is able to precisely identify and locate their pain (bringing on a sense of relief), while the unfeeling are coaxed gently (yet powerfully) into actually feeling something for once in their numb little lives.
One final note: it’s best to listen to Adagio while remaining still and focused, because it is only in sitting motionless that one is moved.
My first encounter
It was spring quarter of my sophomore year in college and I signed up for a music class taught by Dr. Port. He gave the class an extra credit assignment that terminated with the end of the school year. On any given day of class that term a student could sign up to bring in a song, introduce the song briefly, play it for the class and then explain why the song was meaningful to them.
My friend Bill was on deck this particular day. At this point in the term we had heard many songs introduced, played and explained. To this day, I can’t remember a single one of them (save Bill’s selection). Don’t get me wrong: they were all fine songs. It’s just…they were a little…unremarkable. For starters, all of the songs that had been played up to that point in the quarter had lyrics. No one seemed to bother thinking that simple instrumental music could be appreciated as well. So when Bill got up and started to introduce his song I didn’t really listen to what he said (even though he did mention the fact that his particular song didn’t have lyrics). I must admit, the words “adagio for strings” didn’t pique my interest in the least.
So, without too much fanfare, Bill played the song: Bernstein’s interpretation of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. My first thought was that the song was nothing too remarkable. Yet, as the piece progressed I found myself captured by its darkened dimensions. With the climax, my neck tensed and my legs became taut. I curled my toes and waited for the release of a single, long, screeching high note. I found myself wanting the note to last forever while simultaneously begging God for its cessation. Strangely, my awareness of time was heightened in accord with the song’s pitch.
Then, suddenly, the highest elevation is reached. On the top, you can do nothing but listen to silence (or perhaps the wind blowing through your soul). We were (each one of us) held in dense quietude for a few moments, then (tenderly) the violins re-enter, delivering their blissful denouement.
When the song was finished, Bill didn’t need to say a word of explanation. Instantly, we all knew why he had picked that song. He looked at us, put away his music (quietly and carefully) and simply sat down. The professor didn’t ask him to finish the third part of the extra credit assignment. That would have been ludicrous.
My second encounter
One year later. Spring quarter of my junior year of college. I played the part of Otto in a production of The Diary of Anne Frank. When we read the script, the director told us on the first week of rehearsal that we were probably going to cut the last scene. “It’s anti-climactic,” she said.
As dress rehearsal week drew near, however, she knew the play needed something to cap it off. So, about a week before opening night (or maybe only three or four days before—I can’t remember now) the director asked me to do an improvisation of the final scene as it is written in the original script. I did so, and to this day, the director describes that final scene as “a groaning.”
Immediately, we began to look for a song that could serve to preserve the mood during our curtain call. Barber’s Adagio was selected. (I think it was my good friend Matt—who played Peter in the show—who had a copy of Bernstein’s rendition of it. He brought it in the next day and it was decided immediately that that would be just the song for us.)
Appropriately, the actors didn’t take the usual “bows” during the curtain call in this particular production. Instead, we were told to stand with our faces towards the backdrop, looking up and away from the audience. Projected onto the clouds of our surreal set were photos of the victims of Hitler’s Holocaust.
After pronouncement of the play’s last line (“She puts us to shame.”), Otto closed the diary and, as he painfully bowed his head, the lights faded softly. With that, the music began to swell and it truly took over everything.
If volition is seated in the human soul, Adagio seemed to participate in living humanity that night. It literally moved us to fresh depths of sense and action. One person in the audience canceled her Caribbean vacation that next summer to spend two months visiting Europe’s concentration camp memorial sites and reading all she could about the Holocaust. To be sure, with Adagio gaining force in the auditorium we were paying tribute to those who had suffered intensely. But our tribute wasn’t merely emotional (yet hollow of deed); it was the kind of salute that makes a difference in how one lives.
But with all the movement Adagio affected on those evenings, there is one movement I’m glad it didn’t elicit: applause. That would have been most inappropriate, indeed. Adagio made such an impact on us that spring that at least two years had passed before my wife was able to listen to the piece again.
Some unremarkable encounters
Any time Barber’s Adagio is used in a movie soundtrack it is guaranteed to be unremarkable.
Take, for instance, its use in the movie Lorenzo’s Oil. To be certain, this film is the kind of movie one would expect Adagio to fit in with perfectly. It’s about a boy with a rare disease, and when his parents discover the horror that awaits them as their son deteriorates, Adagio fades in. The problem with using Adagio in this instance is not because it doesn’t suit the theme of intense suffering this family is about to experience, but rather because Adagio isn’t played in its entirety. Just when you get to the climax, the song is cut off and you are left feeling manipulated into sorrow (as if the film editing machine tried to slice grief so it would fit into a convenient little time-slot).
I have also heard Barber’s Adagio adapted for choral arrangement. I can’t quite put my finger on why the piece seemed merely sentimental when I heard it performed in this fashion, but it may have to do with the quality of the voices or the quality of its direction. Of course, I have a hunch this is one instance where you actually need strings to tie knots in your heart and then straighten them out again.
Last year’s encounter
Maundy Thursday 2004. There were fewer than twelve people gathered in our living room and my wife had arranged a beautiful service to commemorate Christ’s Last Supper. To assist in our contemplation of the cost of our salvation, the spiritual desolation Christ experienced while hanging on the cross, she selected Barber’s Adagio. She couldn’t have chosen a better piece.
The room was candle-lit as we sat motionless, looking downward. With the opening, repeating cadence I could see Christ: his face set with loving determination while his body buckled under the weight of the cross as he walked the Via Dolorosa. He stumbled and the crowd jeered. The soldiers whipped him and kicked him.
On Golgotha, Adagio crescendos. As the dissonance approaches, announcing its imminent arrival, Christ’s hands are nailed to the cross. Then his feet. The first dissonant chord. His brow winces even as his eyes bulge outward, searching for just one compassionate soul. Now, he’s suspended. The second dissonant chord. He thirsts. Dissonant chord. Naked, wind blowing, he’s ridiculed, the whole world against him. His Father withdraws. “…why have you forsaken me?” Dissonant chord. Jesus gasps and the highest note is struck. How long, O Lord, how long? We yearn, we ache, for deliverance, for resolution.
Suddenly, the earth is somber, the music is resting. This, too, comes as a surprise.
Twilight approaches as Jesus is removed from the cross and laid in the tomb. As the women weep deeply we hear the humbled sound of Adagio’s violins once again. The man they thought was the Christ is wrapped in unbroken pieces of linen and the stone is rolled across the entrance. The women turn away to carry on with the shreds of lives that had once been complete. But all that is gone now. And there are no words to describe the pain He went through. And there are no words to describe the pain of those women. And the music is forever silent.
We blew out the candles and wordlessly concluded the evening. What more was there to say? Barber’s Adagio had said it all.