Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings didn’t start out the way we know it now. In this feature for WRTI, I look at the inescapable strangeness of this work that is now one of the most heard and most moving pieces in the repertoire.
When Samuel Barber wrote Adagio for Strings, it was for string quartet, and it was the middle movement of three. That explains a good deal about this piece we always hear with string orchestra.
Barber, all of 26, composed the two outside movements in a string-friendly key of two sharps, but the middle movement is in an awful key for strings—five flats.
The opening single note is joined by a collective sigh of the most pointed sadness, then traces a meandering, slowly ascending chant. The accompanying voices rarely cadence together, but achingly suspend themselves time and again. Barber’s combination of calm pacing and intensifying background mesmerizes in its trajectory to a shattering climax in the upper reaches of the strings eight minutes later.
The altitude, pacing, and tuning make this incredibly difficult to play well, even for four virtuosos in a quartet, let alone an entire string orchestra. It doesn’t even end on the home chord, because the original led directly onto the next movement.
Samuel Barber was never pleased with that last movement, almost as if he intuited that nothing could follow the Adagio. He knew its power and immediately arranged it—by itself—for string orchestra.
It’s a disquieting piece. But in the last hundred years, it is also probably the most-heard orchestral work in the world.