Thomas Larson's 'The Saddest Music Ever Written,' reviewed by Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, September 16, 2010


The Story of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings

By Thomas Larson

Pegasus. 262 pp. $26.95

Writing about music can't be easy. An art historian can direct the reader's attention to that little patch of yellow in Vermeer's "View of Delft," conveniently reproduced on an adjoining page of his scholarly tome, while a book reviewer can quote whatever illustrative passages he favors from that new novel.

But music critics must either attempt to describe the evanescent and ineffable, which can lead to gushy impressionism, or they must transcribe bars of music notation and start talking about subdominants, rallentando and other arcane compositional matters. In the first case, the reader must already know the music to appreciate the floundering description of its particular clang-tint; in the second, he or she must grasp elementary music theory.

Thomas Larson adopts the subjective approach in "The Saddest Music Ever Written," his rather too personal account of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, an achingly beautiful nine-minute piece written in 1936, deeply revered by music lovers and recognizable to moviegoers from its use in the soundtracks of "Platoon" and "Lorenzo's Oil."

Larson's title is, of course, a debatable one, and some readers might argue that a greater sense of the forlorn can be found in various pieces by Bach, or in the traditional Irish song "Danny Boy," or even in Patsy Cline's "Faded Love," not to overlook any number of jazz saxophone ballads. In the competition for most doleful, Larson himself mentions the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony, Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3 and several funeral marches and dirgelike hymns such as "Nearer My God to Thee." Still, Barber's Adagio is the clear go-to favorite for funerals, memorials and other solemn occasions, such as tributes to the victims of 9/11 or relief benefits for Haiti. Its sustained mournfulness -- lyrical, anguished and full of yearning -- builds to an eventual, but only partial release. As Larson writes:

"Barber composed the sorrow of the Adagio by first concentrating on familiar musical elements: a chantlike melody, rising and falling patterns, restful pauses, growing intensity, string consonance. But then variation, where the composer's genius lies, interrupts the familiarity. Barber's melody, one of many contrasts, is consistently inconsistent, snaking and looping, ascending and falling, traversing longer and shorter lengths. Walter Simmons argues that the Adagio's 'sense of pathos' arises from its many soft dissonances, the suspension, or appoggiaturas, that delay resolution and heighten unease. These suspensions help disrupt the expected harmony, so the piece, exploring the uncharted, sounds new. Or, better put, sounds old and new simultaneously."

Barber was born in 1910 to a well-to-do family in West Chester, Pa., and never had to work at anything but his art. As a student at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, he met fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti, with whom he shared most of his subsequent life. Today Menotti is best known for his short operas, especially that Christmas favorite, "Amahl and the Night Visitors." Both men won Pulitzer Prizes for their music.

When Barber was 26, he and Menotti rented a chalet in Austria and there he worked on a string quartet, ultimately re-scoring its slow movement to create the Adagio for Strings. As Larson admits, almost nothing is known about the genesis of this orchestral masterpiece. By inclination, Barber seems to have gravitated to writing for the voice, as in his second most famous work, the haunting "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," based on a prose-poem by James Agee, and a signature piece for the soprano Leontyne Price. In later years, the composer would mount two operas, the Pulitzer-winning "Vanessa" and the resounding flop "Antony and Cleopatra." Barber never wholly recovered from the latter's failure and gradually sank into bitterness, depression and drink. He died of cancer is 1981.

The summary account of Barber's career is arguably the best part of "The Saddest Music Ever Written." Look out, though, whenever Larson grows personal and essayistic. As early as page 19, sentences such as "The brooding photo of Barber reminded me of my father" hint at what is to come. Several chapters eventually re-create the early life of Larson's parents and chart their later afflictions. What's more, Larson tends to ramble on about melancholia and family sorrows and musical expressiveness, while also repeating over and over the same legitimate points about the Adagio's universality and beauty. All this is meant to underscore the deep humanity of Barber's music but generally seems either misguided or self-indulgent.

Neither is the book helped by the author's sometimes disconcerting diction: "Every claw and nail of the characters' travails erupts from their nuanced voices." On two successive pages Larson employs the bizarre word "self-serious" three times. And then there's his tendency to pop psychologizing or bathetic imaginings:

"No doubt, when Menotti heard the B-flat held above the E-flat minor seventh and the F major chords, then resolve to A, followed by the chantlike melody, he got excited and appreciative, grabbed his handsome young composer from America and held him close, later made love, saying yes we are blessed to have each other yes we wake and walk and live together and yes this is the garden from which our musical selves will grow."

Someone at Pegasus should have alerted Larson to such excesses and urged him to stick with facts and avoid most if not all his egregious personalia. Maybe these economies would have allowed for an index. As it is, much of the most entertaining material in this scattershot book lies in the endnotes, where we learn about various performances and recordings of the Adagio -- those by Arturo Toscanini, Thomas Schippers and Leonard Slatkin are the most admired -- and find amusing anecdotes and bits of trivia. You might or might not be interested to know that the Adagio was played at the funeral of Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul and Mary, or that some scholars have speculated that Barber was inspired by reading Virgil's "Georgics," or that the composer and Andy Warhol "liked each other a lot and once got thrown out of a Manhattan restaurant for telling bawdy jokes too loudly for the other patrons' comfort."

If you're a serious Barber fan, you'll probably want to read "The Saddest Music Ever Written" no matter what critics say about its quirks. Anyone else, though, would be better off buying a couple of Barber CDs -- probably the 1991 Slatkin, which emphasizes the orchestral music, and the Schippers-Price compilation highlighting the vocal works, including the ethereal "Knoxville: Summer of 1915."

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