Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings begins softly, with a single note, a B flat, played by the violins. Two beats later the lower strings enter, creating an uneasy, shifting suspension as the melody begins a stepwise motion, like the hesitant climbing of stairs. In around eight minutes the piece is over, harmonically unresolved, never coming to rest. If any music can come close to conveying the effect of a sigh, or courage in the face of tragedy, or hope, or abiding love, it is this.
Barber’s centenary year (he was born on March 9, 1910, and died in 1981) is being celebrated by performances of his works, including the Adagio, his most famous composition and arguably the most often-heard work of classical music written in the last century.
The Adagio is a shape shifter, widely appropriated in film and television. In recent years it has also become an unexpected hit for a number of pop musicians and remix artists, including the Dutch mixer and producer DJ Tiësto. His 2003 version of the Adagio is still on his set list, he said, because audiences expect him to play it.
“The reaction is phenomenal,” he said recently by phone. “When I play the Adagio, and they hear the bass line and the high sounds, people start screaming. Then at the first break of the track, people scream again. The reactions are the same, all around the world.”
Could we be talking about the same piece?
Photo: Tom Krause and Samuel Barber during a rehearsal of The Lovers, Academy of Music, Philadelphia, September 1971. Photographer: Adrian Siegel.