The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" Print E-mail

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Adagio for Strings: Leonard Slatkin, BBC orchestra, September 15, 2001, perhaps its longest and most emotional performance ever.

The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," Pegasus Books. Hardcover, September 2010, paperback, March 2012.

A YouTube video of my one-hour "Saddest Music" multimedia presentation at Warwick's Bookstore, La Jolla, CA, Tuesday, November 30, 2010.

My passion for Barber’s extraordinary elegy encompasses more than the piece itself. I am fascinated by its emotional tension, its usefulness to our culture, its effect upon my family and me, and its evolution through our changing media. And this passion is rooted in Barber the man, a scarily gifted musician, whose youth vibrated with musical ardor and whose age darkened with alcoholic depression. I find his character as intriguing as his compositions. How did Barber, at the tender age of twenty-six, write such a piece? Is it possible that his youth explains his genius? His genius explain his youth? It seems too easy to say that the child is father to the man when we see how much mature music the man wrote in his twenties. And yet some dark emotion rooted in his core shaped Barber’s childhood and adolescence—lodged in him from birth and emerging as he grows—which might account for his composing a piece of such immense sorrow so early in his life.

Samuel Osborne Barber was born March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, to a comfortable and well-educated family, whose lineage was British, Irish, and Scottish. His father was a physician, affable and community-minded, his mother, an amateur pianist. They loved spoiling their son whose childhood was overseen by cooks and servants and Sunday outings for classical music. But music had its place. As his biographer Barbara B. Heyman notes, music in West Chester was thought a “diversion,” a necessary pastime or hobby, a benchmark of civilized society, not a career per se. Like many homes, the Barbers had a piano, and Sam and his younger sister, Sara, received piano and voice lessons. The boy had a preternatural gift for composition. One source has him “making up tunes on the piano” at the age of two. He penned his first piano piece, prophetically entitled Sadness, twenty-three bars in C Minor, at age seven; an incomplete operetta, The Rose Tree, came at ten. Musical talent ran in the family. His mother’s sister, Louise Homer, a contralto, sang frequently at the Metropolitan Opera, where Barber, hearing her when he was six, was “entranced” by her singing in Aida. Louise’s husband, Sidney Homer, a song composer, would become Barber’s musical mentor. Via their lifelong correspondence, he often sought his uncle’s advice. And, like most musical prodigies, Barber took to languages and literature. He was, says friend and pianist John Browning, “absolutely fluent” in German, French, Italian, and Spanish. He reveled in poetry with a musician’s respect for the well-wrought phrase. Browning noted that Barber was never without a book of poems by his bedside. Among his favorites were the Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, and the American, James Agee. Barber used literature as inspiration for many instrumental compositions. In fact, it is through his literary interests that we have access to his inner life, for his choice of texts say a great deal about his emotional makeup.

At nine, Barber wrote his mother a letter, a child’s Heiligenstadt Testament, about the joy and burden of his gift: “I have written this to tell you my worrying secret.” He says that he doesn’t want to be told to “go play football,” the putative parental wish for any healthy American boy. He says he wasn’t meant to be an athlete. Rather, “I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure.” And he’s serious: “Sometimes I’ve been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very).” What’s he worrying about? Is it not living up to what his parents may have expected from him? Is it that his parents won’t approve of or support him as a composer? It’s an enigma. Michael S. Sherry in Gay Artists in Modern American Culture believes that the “worrying secret” is that he is unlike other boys and that this unlikeness bothers him and his family. “In a family that nourished his interests,” Sherry writes, “his ambition to compose could not have seemed ‘worrying.’” In Sherry’s take, he’s “signaling” that he’s gay. My reading of what he’s so concerned about is neither his music nor his gayness. It’s an over-arching fear of telling others anything private. This was a core conflict for Barber: He simply had a terrible time being himself—which is moody, withdrawn, unsocial, worried, and gay—especially around others, sometimes even with himself. But as a composer, he discovered that he had no trouble putting his private feelings into music. There, he could express who he was without the pain or anxiety that came with the usual public exposure of the private self.

So intense was Sam’s passion for composition and playing—he was a church organist at age twelve—that his aunt and uncle interceded: the boy needed higher-level instruction, the sooner the better. At fourteen, he was the second student to enroll in Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Every Friday morning, he rode the train in from West Chester to study composition, voice, piano, and conducting. In the afternoons, he heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under the great Leopold Stokowski. A photo of Barber and Sidney Homer when Barber is fourteen captures the pair: Homer is a lean, elegant gentleman of Victorian mein. He holds Barber’s arm, whose hand seems cramped by the grip. The pose suggests that the boy-wonder needs an uncle’s brake. But, thankfully, Barber got Homer’s principled encouragement. One example comes from a letter Homer wrote to Barber in 1926: “It takes some courage to go into an art which shows you as you are, and no doubt many wonderful souls have shrunk from the ordeal and refused to put their real emotions into art for others to know.” This, as well as hundreds of other letters Homer wrote to his nephew, reveals that he glimpsed Barber’s innermost conflict; he consistently lauded Barber for reconciling it with his art.

At Curtis, the gawky, musically overdeveloped and mature Barber—round eyeglasses and middle-parted hair, the boy seems to have sprung from the womb already an adult—was already a triple threat: a buoyant baritone, an excellent pianist, an inventive composer. No other student came close to Barber’s range of musicianship and talent. Barber first considered a career as a concert singer, performing in many concerts and honing his technique. But he gave up performance to compose, which is where his true calling was. At the institute, Barber met two profoundly influential musicians, one young, the other much older: The seventeen-year-old Menotti and the fifty-three-year-old Italian composer Rosario Scalero, with whom he would study for nine years.

Scalero, who was mostly a song composer, taught Barber, Menotti, Ned Rorem, and Nino Rota. One critic said that Scalero “writes in a vein that causes no wrinkling of the brow.” Perhaps less devoted to his work, he was a better teacher and for his pupils’ sake, so much the better. Heyman writes that Scalero, who worshiped Brahms, provided a “rigorous, traditional education” in counterpoint, orchestration, and music theory. Students labored their way through the music epochs—Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic—analyzing representative works and writing pieces in what Scalero considered the most difficult style, counterpoint.

With the young Menotti, Barber found his soulmate. Born in Italy in 1911, Menotti met Barber in 1928, after Barber was already well established at Curtis, if still a bit of a lonely soul. Also a song composer, Menotti, who had his own awkward gait and long nose, needed a peer to mentor him and teach him English. He got both in Barber. The magnetic Pennsylvanian bowled him over. In an as-told-to, devotional biography, compiled by John Gruen, Menotti recalled that when he met him, Barber was “extremely well read and had traveled, and he was very spoiled because not only was he good-looking, but he had many talents. He had a beautiful baritone voice . . . also he was an extraordinary pianist, and of course a star composer.” Love at first hearing. At Curtis, “ours became an intense friendship,” Menotti said. “Those were marvelously happy days.”

On his first trip to Europe in 1928, Barber sailed not with Menotti but with a fellow Curtis student—his destination, Italy, and summer lessons with Scalero. Crossing the Atlantic, Barber wrote to his parents that he felt ecstatic, “as far as possible from West Chester as it is in my power to be!” This was no slight against his family but rather Barber’s overdue discovery that leaving the confines of home and all that was familiar was key to his artistic growth. Menotti told Gruen that though Barber’s parents welcomed him in their home and their son’s life, he learned quickly that “behind the facade of those charming old [West Chester] houses all sorts of terrible things were going on. There were stories about alcoholism, incest—terrible things.” From an early age, Barber seemed conflicted about the seemliness of his community and the illicit behaviors that probably were lurking under the surface. And yet it appeared that Barber could never escape its puritanical roots. The West Chester way—a well-oiled public facade protecting private depravity—no doubt taught Barber what to show and what to hide.

By the early 1930s, Barber and Menotti were traveling and studying in Europe each summer. Along the way, Barber was exposed to countless musical influences: he heard a gypsy orchestra, conferred with the young American maverick composer George Antheil (whose opinion was that Barber’s musicality was superb but his form “archaic”), and attended operas in Salzburg and Bayreuth (he was unmoved by Wagner). During a 1929 voyage to Europe with Menotti, Barber wrote to his parents—it is not clear what they knew of the pair’s amore—that “it has been more than a dream-like voyage, because every moment of happiness has been too real for fantasy. . . . Gian Carlo and I drink it all gaily together, be it liquid spaghetti or bad white wine.” And this: Gian Carlo “is quite perfect; at close range, the defects become delights.”

Performances of Barber’s early work were generous. Just after his sixteenth birthday, there was an “all-Barber program” in West Chester. Louise Homer premiered several of Barber’s songs, one at Carnegie Hall in 1927. His Sonata in F minor for Violin and Piano had its first performance at the Curtis Institute in 1928. For years, the piece, which was never published or given an opus number but did win a $1200 prize, was thought lost. But in 2006, following the death of West Chester artist, Tom Bostelle, who once boarded in Barber’s family home, the sonata’s third movement was found among papers belonging to his estate.


What does this sketch of Barber’s early years reveal about the man who will eventually write the Adagio? One prominent feature stamped into his early work is Barber’s songfulness, his ability to create melody as a communicative tool. Perhaps this is indebted to his deep affinity for and close reading of poetry. By 1936, Barber had set numerous Irish and English poems to music. One example, composed when he was eighteen, is the limberly poignant “With Rue My Heart Is Laden” on a poem from A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman. This minute-and-a-half gem has an ecstatic tilt. The piano’s arpeggiated accompaniment and the melody play off startling shifts in harmony and key, agreeing here, out of sync there. Already Barber’s mature style of sliding between major and minor is evident in the piano and voice parts. The very rue of the poem, one of memory initiating loss, is rued by the melody: “With rue my heart is laden / For golden friends I had, / For many a rose-lipt maiden / And many a lightfoot lad.” When death enters the poem in stanza two, Barber continues the lament, resolving the darkness only on the final word: “By brooks too broad for leaping / The lightfoot boys are laid; / The rose-lipt girls are sleeping / In fields where roses fade.”

In 1994, Paul Wittke, a guiding light behind The Musical Quarterly and Barber’s editor at his publisher, G. Schirmer, wrote an insightful remembrance of his friend. “What makes Barber unique,” Wittke notes, “is that he discovered himself so early and that all that he added later . . . is already in place.” What’s “in place” is Barber’s lyricism. It is the one universal aspect of his style, and it shows up in every compositional period. Critics universally mark this. The preeminent Wilfrid Mellers, in Music in a New Found Land, for example, writes that for Barber “the intimate song form was appropriate to the themes that meant most to him.” The strongest theme was his longing for adolescence, and that longing is made palpable by the “lyrical flow” of his melodies. Mellers astutely identifies Barber’s “conservatism” as “not merely a musical tradition, but also the emotional aura of his youth. This ‘personal’ implication comes through in the extreme sensitivity of the vocal line, both to verbal inflection and to the vagaries of mood and feeling.”

Musicians tell me that without the lyric strain, there is no Barber, or, at least, what there is, is second rate. His fast movements often sound generic, even showy. (Barber was perennially dissatisfied with his finales. He revised them again and again, never raising them up to his standard. His adagios, however, as we shall see with his most famous one, landed on his doorstep temperamentally whole.) Consider his lyric record. In two hundred published and unpublished works that Barber wrote during his fifty-plus composing years—from 1927, age 17, until 1978, age 68, three years before his death—roughly half are art songs, choral pieces, song cycles, and opera. (Heyman lists eighty-eight stand-alone songs.) Almost all these pieces possess soulful, meditative, haunting melodies. Much of his instrumental writing—the beautifully declamatory air of the Violin Concerto’s first movement or the exquisitely pained theme launched by the oboe in the second movement—share with the songs a penchant for the supple and the plaintive, whether bittersweet or wistful, adventuresome or plain. To music critic Michael Steinberg, Barber described his vocal/instrumental proclivity as “bisexual. I do both.”

Barber’s melodies conform to the emotional character of the text, the instrument, and the inspiration. None of Barber’s melodies is tossed off or squarishly pop. They are precisely notated and predictably irregular. Barber loves to state a simple melody. But right away he alters that simplicity by stretching or shortening the phrase. The melody, thrown off balance, is freed from any boxy cast and our expectation of where it should go. Using a free or prose-like rhythm, Barber seems to discover as he composes the melody’s character. It’s too easy to say it sounds natural—but it does. That naturalness lies in the line’s expansion and contraction, its lingering beginning, its rushing conclusion. Barber’s way with a tune is similar to the a-periodic shapes that his contemporaries, Charles Ives and Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, mastered. Such shaping is endemic to modernism and accounts for music’s radical change from the boxy phrasal standards of Haydn and Mozart. As a composer, Barber is unconcerned with a singer’s or a player’s use of rubato, or “stolen time,” in which a line or phrase is sped up or slowed down as the performer sees fit. (The singing Barber used rubato a good deal.) Instead, he notates his wandering or elongating rhythms exactingly. The best example is the meticulous notation with which Barber sets James Agee’s prose poem, Knoxville: Summer of 1915. In it, he captures the lilt of Agee’s prose rhythms and the lost world of childhood which that lilt longs to restore.

As for Barber’s harmony, the least complicated thing to say is that this element is subservient to his melodic flexibility. Whether he uses a modal, tonal, bi-tonal, chromatic, or dissonant harmonic language—at times he builds chords on fourths or else stacks neighboring triads—he does so to bring a lulling comfort or sudden severity to the melodic-rhythmic suppleness I note above. When scoring, his orchestration is often more transparent than rich.


The lyricism of the Adagio is native to Barber’s youth. That’s incontestable. But is the sorrow native as well? Is it possible that in the same way Barber was tendered his melodic facility he was also given an acute sensitivity to pain? Could he have expressed such sadness in music without having lived it? His early biography, which I’ve given in general outline, attests to scant trouble, with the possible exception of West Chester’s unseemliness and the growing awareness of his “otherness.” Judging by the letters, Barber appeared to have loved his parents, adored his aunt and uncle, fallen for Menotti, and been given opportunities that few others ever receive. At nineteen, he writes to his parents about his “memorable adventure” of studying music in Europe: “How can I thank you enough for letting me have it, or it for giving me a friend long-awaited, or Europe itself for opening my eyes to its fingers of beauty!”

Barber never had a regular job, either to earn extra money or to further his professional career. Unlike most composers, he did nothing but compose: no writing besides the letters; no lectures; a few recitals when young; a handful of conducting gigs, one at Curtis with the Madrigal Chorus, for which he studied even in middle age; two years teaching orchestration at Curtis, which he later said he hated. All he wanted was to write music, and he had the financial means and talent to do so unmolested.

And yet something in Barber was calling out to be heard. When he was twenty-one, Barber set Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” for baritone and string quartet. Based on one of the most pessimistic poems in English literature, this is Barber’s first masterpiece. In it, he emphasizes the mournful mood with a chromatic, near atonal melody and a repetitious accompaniment in the strings that feels trapped, even feverish. Gone is the meter of the verse. In its place is a mini-oratorio, with cold statement and sudden flights of dramatic lyricism. The waves, “with tremulous cadence slow,” come ashore, and are depicted with a rocking, dizzying motion. When the waves “bring / the eternal note of sadness in,” we are pulled into an abyss from which there seems no relief. But Barber provides it. Two climaxes come within a minute of each other: on “Ah, love, let us be true / to one another!” and, even more forcefully, on “neither joy, nor love, nor light.” In succession, both high points fall and fade until there is no “help for pain.” Barber’s musical setting endows a grave poem with a parallel seriousness and a sensual gravity a reader may not have suspected the poem had. Years later, Paul Wittke remarked that Dover Beach is “another proof that Barber’s melancholy was endemic to his nature.”

In the summer of 1936, a photograph was taken of Barber and Menotti in St. Wolfgang, Austria, where Barber and Menotti resided in a chalet in which he wrote the Adagio later that year. In it, we see the two side by side in profile, matching smiles and sprightly gazes. Their youthful vigor is irrepressible. But wait. Barber is about to pen the saddest music ever written. And yet judging by what biographers describe as the pair’s “loving friendship” (the code then for romantic intimacy among men) as well as by the boyishly exuberant letters Barber wrote to his parents that year, how are we to square this sunny photo and the music’s angst?

Most scholars and observers, as well as those who knew Barber personally, do not agree as to the origin or the impetus for the Adagio’s creation—but none dispute that it is of Barber. Some think that while young he managed his melancholia, that is, kept it hidden, especially as his career got off to such a promising start, with financial awards and premieres, trips to Europe and paid-for villas where he could compose. Others say that his sadness has much to do with hiding his homosexuality: he could never quite be himself around others, so he withdrew or was defensive, except in his music. Again, the music provided an out. In Britten and Barber: Their Lives and Their Music—a book that tells how Benjamin Britten’s gayness in stuffy old England was as much in the cupboard as Barber’s was in puritanical Pennsylvania—Daniel Felsenfeld writes that “perhaps it was not [Barber’s] sexuality per se, but the feelings generated by his sexuality that gave him this sense of alienation.” Countering Felsenfeld’s view, some argue that Barber’s sexual passion and detachment were his business, no different from his West Chester Presbyterianism and small-town haughtiness. Both were intrinsic, forming a barrier to the Adagio’s pent-up emotion. Still others suggest that the Adagio’s despair reflects Barber’s estrangement from the composers of his time. While he wrote in a late-Romantic style, more Italianate than American, he sounded out of sorts with his rough-hewn brethren who, in the 1930s, styled a new music with nationalistic, atonal, or jazz elements. Barber did use atonal elements but his method was additive, not structural. Was his homelessness in modern music a source for the Adagio’s purgative emotion? On top of all this, Barber may have repressed his core darkness since it wasn’t easy for him to live up to his own artistic standard, namely, diving into his emotional abyss. Certainly living up to Samuel Barber’s high bar must have, at times, debilitated even Samuel Barber.

I agree with those who knew Barber long term: his personality was woe-ridden from birth. I find it remarkable that he was given this calling, which, like Orpheus, he could neither escape nor tamp down. He became more comfortable with his calling, but not until he had written many highly expressive pieces, among them Dover Beach, and not until he adapted to the grievous feelings his musical talent was directing him. He probably knew his melancholy was progressive. He may have felt it would neutralize him unless he gave in. Thus, he poured himself into composition, writing a lyrical music ever more complicated by his dread of what he would become. It took time for him to discover just how inalienable the trait of melancholy was in him.


sb-accueil-transIn 2004, the radio program, BBC Today, began a competition to find the saddest music in the world. After receiving more than four hundred nominations, they listed the top five on a website for voting. The audience preferred Barber’s Adagio more than two to one over the second place vote-getter and four to one over number three.

1) Barber’s Adagio for Strings (52.1%)

2) Henry Purcell’s "Dido’s Lament" (20.6%)

3) Gustav Mahler’s Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony (12.3%)

4) Billie Holiday’s "Gloomy Sunday," written by the Hungarian Rezsô Seress (9.8 %)

5) Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen (5.1 %)

It may strike you, as it did me, whether or not these five pieces are comparable. True, all five are slow, some very slow, while the Strauss, a work for twenty-three strings that lasts twenty-five minutes, develops and changes character, which the others don’t. Four are minor-keyed, Mahler’s Adagietto in major. Two have texts that describe the sorrow: Dido pre-grieves her own death, hoping to be remembered, although she is dying because she cannot live without Aeneas; and Holiday, in a dream, believes the man she loves has died and she will soon join him.

Evaluated together, these pieces reveal that listeners identify sad music differently. There is no universal decoder. I think the common thread is that they evoke the feelings we have when we lose what we love.

The Purcell aria, from his opera Dido and Aeneas (1689), is tragically forlorn. Dido exclaims that since her lover, Aeneas, has left, she will die rather than live without him. "When I am laid, am laid in my grave, may my wrongs create / No trouble, no trouble in thy breast." In Opera As Drama, Joseph Kerman says Purcell achieves the deathly tension by using a ground bass, "a particular descending, depressive bass figure," which is "magnificently appositive to Dido’s dying lament." "The very simplicity of the form, with its unyielding, uncomprehending bass, seems to stress, magnify, and force the insistent grief of Dido’s situation." For Kerman, "the musical form"—ground against air—"fixes the emotion."

Although we imagine her suicide a joyless occasion, we view her death more in the context of her drama, less our own. We feel sorry for Dido, not for ourselves. By contrast, Barber’s work seems bent on making us feel our part in the tragedy, even as we memorialize the famous. Fame grants intimacy. We feel we know Princess Grace or JFK. We don’t know Dido, though the courtiers of Purcell’s time may have felt they did. During the funeral procession for President Roosevelt in Washington, a reporter asked a man, weeping with grief, if he had known the president. "No," the man said, "but he knew me."

Mahler’s Adagietto is a poignant, searching, occasionally aggrieved piece. The piece is known for its languid melody and its many slow-resolving appoggiaturas, or suspensions, that delay the harmonic resolution. I hear in the movement (the fourth of five in the symphony) a music that continually rests and revives itself like a waking dream. The final suspension, the famous four-three resolution of the end, is one of the most emotionally penetrating moments in all music. Barber’s piece possesses no such closure. While Mahler’s feels buoyant, almost serene in its exhaustion, Barber’s stays put in the darkness. Little satisfaction rings from the double sforzando F-flat major chord at the heartrending apex of the Adagio nor from the F major chord of the pianissimo ending.

"Gloomy Sunday," written in 1941, is quite sad. And yet Holiday’s depression is also loving, her wistful voice resilient. The dream of death she describes is haunting, but it also passes, in part, because she is singing it past. I don’t feel trapped by her gloom. What’s more, I find (as I do with most jazz) the motif of survival, that though life is adversarial, especially for African-Americans, the song brings her through, wounded but whole. In the song lies the victory. In comparison, I hear no such resolution with Barber’s dirge. Just the descent, not the coming out.

The story is that Holiday is dreaming of ending her life because her man has died. But she realizes it’s been a dream that her heart has fashioned because even though he’s asleep beside her, she still wants him. The lyrics are wonderful. The first verse:

Sunday is gloomy / My hours are slumberless / Dearest the shadows / I live with are numberless.

Little white flowers / Will never awaken you / Not where the black coach / Of sorrow has taken you.

Angels have no thought / Of ever returning you / Would they be angry / If I thought of joining you.

Strauss’s Metamorphosen (1945) is a curious choice because of its length and because it explores, in complex shifting chromatic harmonies, the unsettledness of resignation. Over so much time, I don’t think there can be a unifying emotion, although the piece gnaws remorsefully on some bit. Three ideas are cited to explain the genesis of this piece, which Strauss finished the day President Roosevelt died. First, it was written in response to the bombing of the Munich Opera House, whose loss Strauss said was "the greatest catastrophe that ever disturbed my life." (Some find this remark anti-Semitic, considering the time and place.) Second, according to the New Grove, it was based, research "has convincingly shown," on a poem by Goethe that argues we cannot know our motivations; in writing the piece, Strauss may have been thinking of a man he once admired and who was horribly self-deceived, Adolph Hitler. The piece, beginning with a fragment from Beethoven’s Funeral March, quotes it clearly in an ending passage under which Strauss writes, "In Memoriam." Failed instincts in his führer or himself? Third, again as the New Grove states, "Metamorphosen seeks to probe the cause of war itself, which stems from humanity’s bestial nature." The Rough Guide to Classical Music quotes Strauss after he finished the piece: "History is almost entirely an unbroken chain of acts of stupidity and wickedness, every sort of baseness, greed, betrayal, murder and destruction. And how little those who are called upon to make history have learned from it." British music critic Alan Jefferson agrees that Strauss permeated this piece with his bleakest view of humankind, calling Metamorphosen "possibly the saddest piece of music ever written." This last claim may account for its 5.1% of the BBC voters.

For me, the piece possesses little of the Adagio’s pith and attack. Rather, Metamorphosen entangles its heart-stricken woe in innumerable contrapuntal byways of development and variation. Strauss’s serenade keeps wandering away from its target, passionately avoiding what it can never quite zero in on and sting. Which is its ruminative charm. I find the work to be gravely somber in parts but not, as The Rough Guide claims, "music of the most trenchant anger."

None of these four shares the revelatory doom of the Adagio. If anything, the contest proves that Barber’s work inhabits a kingdom unto itself. Though we feel other sad music is comparable, put side-by-side, nothing quite compares. On the other hand, the exercise shows that pieces of well-wrought gloom hover around a "general" emotion and owe their singular brilliance to the particular personal shape each composer brings. The composer taps the musical manifestation of his personality while words help us name it: Purcell’s bitter longing, Mahler’s sumptuous giving-in, Holiday’s dreamy pathos, Strauss’s yearning despair. And still each of us might tweak these adjectival approximations, feeling Strauss, for example, to be more brooding than yearning.

As one who listens to music frequently, in concert and on recording, I am never sure whether I (the listener) am absorbing the musical emotion or I (the writer) am trying to create its equivalent in language. I realize the two endeavors have quite different ends and operate in different parts of the brain. But they constantly cross and re-cross, nudged and propelled by music’s suggestibility: music calls up words as much as music quiets, even negates, the words it has called up.


My choices of what the Adagio is comparable to are not those preferred by the BBC audience. I find the following pieces just as sorrow-worthy.

Henryk Górecki: the Third Symphony, subtitled "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" (1976). Making its American record debut in 1992, this CD was a million seller. The canonic dirge in three movements is among the most sustained elegiac pieces ever composed, indebted to the tenets of minimalism and Gregorian chant. Its grief feels, in waves of meditative accretion and dynamic insistence, planetary and post-Holocaust. Its longing is focused on the separation of child and parent—texts include Mary’s suffering for her lost son and a teenage girl’s pleading to her mother, which Górecki found on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell.

Arvo Pärt: Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977). This ingenuous six-minute piece for string orchestra and bells is composed of two harmonic elements: an A-minor scale and the triadic notes of an A-minor chord (A, C, E), descending. Scales and chords in different orchestral groups descend at different and slowing rates of speed, creating myriad sound combinations. These combinations, in turn, ring with what Pärt called "tintinnabuli": when adjacent notes sound together, most abrasively on the half-tone intervals F and E and C and B, the clash and clang resembles the overtone rich noise of a bell. Here, however, the slowing downward movement of the notes keeps changing the sound. The effect has a devastating feel to it, the sound of entombment.

Valentin Silvestrov: Sixth Symphony, third movement. The whole symphony (1994/95) has a brooding and arrested quality to it. Arpeggios of half and whole notes float upward and stop. Much of the whole is pulseless but seldom plodding. The symphony seems content with its meditative motionlessness. As many of its lyrical or dark melodic flights get going, they are quickly caught from behind like netted butterflies. The upshot is mesmerizing.

Joni Mitchell: "River." This rough-cut diamond unites Mitchell’s aching voice, her plangent piano, its "Jingle Bells" quotation, and an incongruent lyric, "I wish had a river I could skate away on." For Mitchell, it seems, music is regret, especially on the album Blue (1971), from which this piece comes. Her songs remember what she’s lost, not what she’s gained. As if the point is to have lost something and to find meaning, if not being, in missing it. Like the Adagio, "River," too, ends on the dominant, unresolved.

Tom Waits: "Georgia Lee" (1999). Where Mitchell bewails her woe, Waits growls his way through the unheralded and ungrieved death of a runaway girl. His lumbering style features a mallet-heavy piano, a church-hymn accompaniment, a mud-stuck pace, his broken-glass voice, and, in this tune, a bridge that recalls the child’s promise and a chorus that makes religious belief culpable: "Why wasn’t God watching / Why wasn’t God listening / Why wasn’t God there for Georgia Lee."

Each of these pieces insists on musical shapes and sounds that enforce suffering, pain, and alienation on the listener, often with a kind of inspired hopelessness. Why else create, for example, the near incessant pinpoint turning of a chromatic phrase in Alfred Schnittke’s "Collected Songs Where Every Verse Is Filled With Grief" (1984/1985), but to penetrate us with its needling insistence? I wonder why composers haven’t discovered sooner that music can—maybe should—embrace, even inflict, sorrow. The Western composer seems to have realized—post-Holocaust, post-Vietnam—that she can concentrate on bad news, in which the music vivifies its association to sound’s peculiar hurtful and healing energy. (In this regard I direct the listener to Shostakovich’s Thirteenth String Quartet, written in 1970, an eighteen-minute bitter farewell to life, submarine dive into mortality, and essay on human depravity.) Perhaps the violent excesses of the twentieth century has pushed the composer to respond with a fearless extramusicality. This is true for much of Shostakovich’s music. Still, it has taken a long time for our composers to challenge the Germanic classical tradition and its service to God, virtuoso, and the creator’s ego. Not until recently has the composer overthrown the strictly observed meta-narratives of our musical history and culture.