Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Saddest Music Ever Written

Editor's note: This piece by Andrew Amelinckx originally appeared in the Register-Star's on-line edition Sept. 20 in a slightly different version.

The soldier runs toward the helicopter, which is fast leaving the ground. His comrades look on in desperation at the seemingly hundreds of enemy troops on the man’s heels. The music swells as he falls to the ground, hit by a number of bullets, only to get up again, the action in slow motion.

The music that gives this scene from the 1986 film “Platoon,” written and directed by Oliver Stone, its power and gravitas is “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber.

This piece, written in 1936 as part of Barber’s “String Quartet , Op. 11” was the topic of a lecture at the Hudson Opera House given by Thomas Larson.

Larson is the author of “The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’,” recently published by Pegasus Books.

The book encompasses history, culture and the personal as it relates to “Adagio for Strings,” and seems to have haunted the author and journalist far longer than the 10 months it took him to write it.

“Each book is an odyssey,” he said.

Between the ages of 10 and 32 Larson considered himself a musician and composer and earned a degree in musical composition, but at age 32 he abruptly shifted gears, leaving music behind for writing.

He said he has never fully understood why he stopped making music, but believes it was at least partially motivated by a “messy divorce.”

He eventually returned to music in a different way, through language, but struggled with how to convey the idea of music through the written word.

“Why do so many of us try to explain the beauty of music, thus depriving it of its mystery?” he quoted the famed conductor Leonard Bernstein as saying.

“I struggled with it for years,” Larson said. But eventually he was able to make it work in “Adagio for Strings” through the inclusion of various writing styles — a hybrid narrative, he calls it — from personal memoir to biography and musical analysis. He also included three fictionalized episodes involving his father, mother and grandmother hearing the Barber piece.

“All the facts are true,” he said, “but I also imagined their inner lives ... This was the way I was able to write about music.”

Larson’s relationship with the Barber work stretches back to the 1970s when he heard the piece on a record of orchestral music by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Thomas Schippers.

He said an image of Barber on the back of the album reminded him of his father, a World War II veteran, who had died two years earlier. Barber, he said, seemed to have the same sense of sadness his father had.

He listened to the piece a lot that summer, he said, not sure whether it was from grief or another one of the emotions he was feeling at a time when his life was in flux.

Whether it was grief or not that drew the young Larson to “Adagio for Strings,” the work would, over the course of several decades, take on that role for many Americans, beginning with the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945.

“That weekend Barber’s ‘Adagio’ played on the radio,” said Larson. “It got into (Americans’) bones...After 1945 the appropriation began in earnest.”

The piece was later heard at memorials and funerals for such notables as Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy and Grace Kelly.

From there it found its way into a number of films, including 1980’s “The Elephant Man,” “El Norte” from 1986 and another film from that year, “Platoon.”

“It sums up the moral quagmire of Vietnam better than anything I know,” said Larson of the aforementioned scene in the film.

“Adagio” has also been heard in parody form on such television shows as “Seinfeld,” “The Simpsons” and “South Park.”

DJ TiĆ«sto, a Dutch musician, created an electronic version of “Adagio” that was heard by a reported four billion people, due in part to its being played at the 2004 Olympic games in Greece.

Barber, according to Larson, probably wouldn’t be too happy with the results since he was apparently disgruntled by the piece’s popularity in his own lifetime.

“He refused to have it played at his funeral,” said Larson.

Barber, born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1910 already knew at age 10 he was going to create music, writing a letter to his mother that year in which he tells her he will never be an athlete, but would be a composer.

Larson drew the conclusion from the letter that there was also an unstated, but inferred reference to Barber’s homosexuality.

Barber created the piece when he was 26 during a summer in Italy with his longtime partner Gian Carlo Menotti, also a composer, who Barber met when they were both studying at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute.

Menotti recalled that the couple “were so happy” that summer, leading one man at Sunday’s event to wonder aloud if “Adagio” wasn’t a love song that had somehow become appropriated as a piece associated with mourning.

“Adagio,” taken from the middle section of Barber’s “String Quartet” was reworked by the composer for the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini as a piece for string orchestra, which was first performed in 1938.

For Larson, one of the greatest performances of “Adagio” was at the Royal Albert Hall by the BBC Symphony, conducted by the American Leonard Slatkin four days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The piece, which is nine minutes long, said Larson, was stretched out to more than 10 minutes.

Slatkin said it was the most emotional night he had ever spent in a concert hall.

“It commands attention like few works do,” said Larson.