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  • Writer's pictureSona Schmidt-Harris

Barber's Adagio for Strings - An Ascension and Explication of Grief

Updated: Oct 26, 2018


Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings has been described as " . . . a stepwise motion, like the hesitant climbing of stairs" by Johanna Keller of the New York Times. Indeed, one feels ascension, but the ascension is not to redemption, but to a plateau of grief. The listener somehow aches for resolution, but full resolution never comes.

Written by American composer, Samuel Barber, this explication of grief is somehow un-American. For what is the perceived American ideal, but to ascend to greater heights for fulfillment and happiness? However, even the American Constitution does not promise happiness--only the pursuit of happiness.

I posit that Adagio for Strings is not only "a stepwise motion," but a stepwise motion akin to climbing a spiral staircase; there is one rotation after another around a defined epicenter. Adagio for Strings repeatedly contemplates itself during the ascent. To the listener, an apt analogy is that the melody winds around the spinal column up into the brain until the full cognizance of sorrow is realized.

Stubbornly refusing to settle upon hope, the listener is forced into the contemplation of sadness; there is really nowhere else to go. The melody makes the listener's experience all the more painful. Prayer and supplication for relief intensifies in the higher, longer-held notes only to be answered by lower notes--not an answer from heaven, but from the sad catacombs of our own hearts.

Barber himself saw Adagio for Strings as a prayer and supplication when he set the score to a choral rendition of Agnus Dei, which translates approximately as:

"Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace."

Rather than focusing on the answer to the supplication, Barber focuses on the prayer itself forcing us to feel human anguish without heavenly intervention. It does not mean that intervention will not come; Agnus Dei simply wants us to sit in sorrow and feel the pain of the supplicant. In some ways, it is an act of bravery simply to listen to the Adagio to its completion. What is so painful, is that it mimics most supplicants' experience; there is no relief for a time--an all too human experience--one which we sometimes do not want to acknowledge.

As long as people continue to listen to Adagio for Strings to its completion, a cognizance of one's own suffering and hopefully others' will be realized. Perhaps this is what Barber had in mind all along.

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