Thomas Larson’s ‘Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings’

Listen to the Story

In his book, "The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's 'Adagio for Strings'," Thomas Larson explores what it is about Barber's work that has rooted it in the America psyche.(Photo: fgdg)
In his book, "The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's 'Adagio for Strings'," Thomas Larson explores what it is about Barber's work that has rooted it in the America psyche.(Photo: fgdg)

No other piece of music has rooted itself so firmly in the American psyche as an icon of mourning as Samuel Barber‘s Adagio for Strings. That’s what author Thomas Larson claims in his most recent book, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

In 1945, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings comforted a bereft nation after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1963, it once again brought the nation together to mourn the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In 1982, it was the musical score for the globally televised funeral of Monaco’s Princess Grace Kelly. And, a few years later, in the soundtrack for the feature film Platoon, it became synonymous with America’s grief over the Vietnam conflict.

No dry-as-dust music history tome, Larson’s book is the record of its author’s heartfelt quest through Barber’s yearning and elegiac Adagio – a piece that Larson writes, “captured my heart and has never let go” – to understand the lives and sorrows of his father, mother and grandmother.

That Larson seems to have come to his best understanding of his elders after their deaths with the help of the Adagio is a testament to its power to initiate individual grieving.

That Barber’s Adagio has proven, over time, to unite people at moments of shared loss speaks volumes about the force of its inherent sadness, its sorrowful tone — whatever it is that calls us together to confront what we once had but have no more.

In an interview last spring, Larson told me more about exploring his family relationships through Barber’s Adagio — how the technique he calls, “imaginative memoir” helped him to both, understand the lives his parents and grandmother had led and to craft a personal narrative at once searching and candid.

We also spoke about the power of music to “provoke something far deeper than we realize;” about how, in an American culture ill at ease with sadness, Barber’s Adagio for Strings creates a space for individual and collective grieving that other elegiac musical works do not; and about the universal fascination with how music works on us in what Larson calls the “memoir culture” of our age.

I’m not sure any other piece of music has ever understood me as well as Barber’s Adagio. The first time I heard it, I was 13 years old and had just become acquainted with the hard realities of loss.

My fascination with music had begun years earlier, but there was something about the Barber that was truly unique; no other piece of music had taken me so directly into the teenage blues.

Today, Barber’s Adagio for Strings is but one of my many musical companions. But now it carries much heavier baggage for me than it did before adult experience set in.

Some of my musical companions take me on carefree larks, some of them help me drift to sleep, and some others make me feel sunshine even on a winter evening. But Barber’s Adagio is the one musical companion who reads my soul. I need not say a word. In my silence, the Adagio listens at least as much to me as I do to it.

Maybe you too have discovered that there is just something about this piece, or maybe some other piece of music (or visual art or writing) has helped you process your world. I hope you’ll explore your experience with us Nov. 14 at the McConnell Arts Center of Worthington.

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