Music and emotion, plus a nice analysis of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” from NPR

As it does from time to time, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” captured my mind and sent me off to some web searches and music history reading. That realm is not familiar territory to me, to be sure, but I do love the Adagio. I’ve mentioned it in only two other blog posts that I can find:

Which only means I have practiced some restraint, since I thought I had mentioned it in others and had thought to do so.

You’ve probably heard it before if the name does not sound familiar to you. Parts of it were used in the famous death scene of Elias in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (a movie I have not seen, by the way, and suspect I couldn’t recommend), and it was played very memorably, and beautifully, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in England, lead by American conductor Leonard Slatkin for Last Night of the Proms on September 15, 2001 as a tribute to those who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks only four days earlier.

The “Adagio for Strings” is widely considered one of the most beautiful and emotionally evocative pieces of classical music in the modern era, and it achieves its impact with such a simple structure — perhaps part of the key to its success. As I think I mentioned in one of those blog posts, it is one of the musical pieces that stirs me to wonder about the manner in which we connect with music: That a piece of music can be so broadly recognized as beautiful and, with no words at all, can so consistently evoke such melancholy emotions in such a variety of people amazes me, and tells me that there must be underlying laws and design in place.

I mean, having different people read the same story and both agree that it is sad is one thing. But having different people hear the same wordless music and agree that it is sad is another. What is truly “sad” about a collection of notes and chords? We are sad about things happening to people (including ourselves) and animals — and even places, attached, perhaps, to memories. Memories, intangible and evanescent they may be, can evoke sadness, and that is understandable. They are attached to experience, real or imagined. But music? A collection of sounds? Though attached to nothing in reality beyond vibrating air molecules, it can provoke very real emotions in our hearts and minds. In fact, the emotion evoked may be the one real attachment the music has.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not concede that every musical expression has a specific, objective emotive assignment — a consistent and “right” emotional effect it causes — and I do not concede (at least not yet) that any musical expression must have such. But only the fool would fail to see that music can be, in some ways and circumstances, a means of accessing emotions directly, even if no real experience exists at that time to justify the emotion.

Barber’s “Adagio” is certainly a piece capable of creating such access.

If you’ve never heard it, there are plenty of resources online. On my iPhone, I have a copy of the great Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic in performing the “Adagio for Strings,” and he seems, to me, to do it just right. A conductor needs patience, methinks, to go at the slow pace that gives fullness to the Adagio’s impact, and I think Bernstein hits the nail on the head. Feel free and purchase a copy of that from iTunes (like you need my permission). Also, the original performance by Arturo Toscanini in 1938 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra is available in various places. I think Toscanini paces it just a little to quickly, but that’s just me. I’ll try to include a link below where you can hear it.

In fact, let me shut up at this point and just give you some links. 🙂

I think NPR’s program discussing the structure of the Adagio and how it achieves its emotional effect is really worth reading for those who would be interested. That can be found here: “Barber’s ‘Adagio’: Naked Expression Of Emotion” — apparently part of a series they do on what makes particular pieces of music (et al.?) great. Don’t read it until you’ve heard the piece, though. Hear it first, dissect it later, but I did enjoy reading the NPR piece analyzing the music, and reading it last night prompted me to listen to it a few more times this morning. There is a playable music file on that page where you can hear it. Also, you can hear it’s original (slightly more briskly paced) performance led by Toscanini in 1938 at this NPR webpage: “The Impact of Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’.” After hearing it performed a tad more slowly, you can let me know if you prefer Toscanini’s tempo.

And here is a YouTube video of the BBC performance on September 15, 2001 that I mentioned earlier. It is the Last Night of the Proms, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra being led by conductor Leonard Slatkin, playing Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” in memory of those killed four days before in the terrorist attack in New York. You might want to make your first hearing a purely audio affair, listening with eyes closed; however, if the visuals won’t interfere the performance below is very good, in my, admittedly, musically naïve opinion.

5 thoughts on “Music and emotion, plus a nice analysis of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” from NPR

  1. Some time I ought to quote to you Curt Sachs (musicologist) and/or Will Durant (historian) on what different peoples have found musically “moving”. Western classical music and Arabo-Persian classical music are mutually incomprehensible as musical and emotive languages. And classical Balinese music? Forget it, Westerner! 😀

    Not that there aren’t universal principles of music. As it happens, Western music comes closer to many of them than any other kind now extant, because its ultimate roots in fact are even deeper in biblical Israel than they are in classical Greece. It was to Israel, not to other peoples, that all the essential principles of “art song” which is pleasing to God and edifying to man were revealed. Everyone else has gone off on their their tangents, in music as in everything else. Even Western music has done so in some very important ways – we pay a price for some of the abilities our music has compared to that of antiquity (e.g., the ability to change keys quickly and easily comes at the price of purity of harmony and of the different “flavors” different keys are supposed to have).

    We owe what Western music is today to the efforts of Monteverdi and others who sought to rediscover the secrets of the Greeks on the one hand and of the Hebrews on the other, in giving music its potential and power – especially when wedded with lyrics. In the process, what we call functional tonality was (re)discovered – explaining why the original music to which Hebrew Scripture was sung sounds so “modern” to our ears and why some ancient Greek music does too.

  2. David Machancik

    Guess I am a “Philistine”. Too long for my taste – give me some singing to go with it.
    The most memorable sad music I remember is from “the good, the bad, and the ugly” – the best of the spaghetti westerns. Overall a great musical accompaniment to go with an entertaining movie.

  3. Thomas

    Possibly because of the “Last Night of the Proms” connection used above another moving piece of music that springs to mind is Elgar’s “Nimrod” from his “Enigma Variations”. This is a youtube link to Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnigie Hall in 1997 (4 min 20 sec).

  4. Thomas

    Oops, that should be Carnegie Hall. Used the middle finger of my other “left hand” when typing that out.

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