Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #2/50: Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 by Samuel Barber

Today’s composition is one of the most famous American classical compositions of all-time: Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings, Opus 11. We know that the word Opus means that this was Barber’s eleventh published composition, but today we are also going to discuss the meaning of the word Adagio. Adagio is a musical term that instructs orchestras on which tempo (or speed) to use when playing the song. Specifically, Adagio means to play slowly. If you look at the sheet music above, you will note the term, Molto adagio at the top, left hand corner. This means Very Slowly. So, even before looking at what notes to play, an orchestra member would note the instruction given by the composer regarding the tempo they had in mind and formulate an appropriate playing style in their minds before ever beginning to play. The term Allegro is the counter-balance to Adagio, as it means to play quickly, with energy and joy. Consequently, before we start to discuss the nature of this famous composition, you can tell from its title that Adagio for Strings, Opus 11 was Samuel Barber’s eleventh composition, that it was written for stringed instruments and that it will be a piece of music that is played slowly because of the use of the term, Adagio.

Samuel Barber was one of America’s most famous and prolific composers from his early days during the Great Depression, all the way to his death in the early 1980s. He was born into a musical family. His mother was a concert pianist and his aunt was an opera singer. Barber showed prodigy-like talent from an early age and was writing his own sonatas before the age of ten. Such was Barber’s talent that he was enrolled in a special school for musically gifted children called The Curtis School in Philadelphia. While just entering his teens, Barber graduated with a triple-major in Voice, Piano and String music. While still a young man in his early twenties, Barber began writing operas. While doing so, he fell in love with a tenor named Gian Carlo Menotti and began a love affair that spanned over a half century. In addition to being a gifted composer, Barber was just as well known for being an educator and has been often cited by modern American composers as a role model and mentor for those lucky enough to have worked under his guidance. Samuel Barber won the Pulitzer Prize for Music twice, but his best known work is Adagio For Strings, Opus 11.

Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 was written for a string quartet in 1939. America was just regaining its moxy after having suffered through The Great Depression. However, the mood in the U.S.and around the world was somber, as World War II was just about to start in Europe. Barber’s composition is certainly one that captured the forlorn nature of the times. Adagio for Strings, Opus 11 has been voted as being the saddest song in the world. It possesses beauty and elegance, but does so in a way that often elicits an emotional response from listeners in the form of sadness. Not surprisingly, Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 has become one of the most requested funeral songs and has been played at the funerals of prominent people such as Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Albert Einstein. It was also played in England to close out the famous BBC Proms series of concerts just after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York City. Adagio for Strings, Opus 11 was first played on NBC Radio during a performance of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as conducted by famed conductor, Arturo Toscanini. It was also the very first musical composition played when the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts first opened in the 1960s. This musical composition has been used to create a reflective, emotional mood in movies, too. Most famously, Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 was played while Willem Dafoe’s character was killed in the Vietnam war movie, Platoon. *(I will include that scene in the links below).

It is easy to label Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 as “sad music” and then leave it at that. But, to do so is to miss the genius of this composition. A funny and unexpected thing has happened to Adagio for Strings, Opus 11 as our calendars flipped from 1999 to the 2000s. One of the greatest trends in modern music in the past twenty years has been the coming together of classical music and electronic dance music. Orchestras the world over are now giving concerts that take the best of the classical music genre and combine it with the latest EDM technology and, as such, new life is being breathed into centuries old music which, in turn, is causing the original pieces to be re-interpreted. In 2004, a Dutch DJ named Tiesto took Barber’s “sad song” and pumped it up with techno beats and in doing so, helped to create a song that now fills listeners with euphoria. Even though Tiesto’s version of Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 is populated with synthesized thumping beats, the inner strength of Barber’s score is immediately recognizable. But, more importantly, what Tiesto managed to accomplish was to show the world that Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 is not an inherently sad song…it is an inherently emotional song, and that this emotion can be used for happiness and optimism, just as easily as it had been known for sadness and feelings of loss in the past.

So, in the videos below, I will show you a performance of this composition by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. I will add a second video that shows how Barber’s version of Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 was used in the movie, Platoon. Finally, we will change the feel of this music completely while viewing the joyfulness of Tiesto’s version as played at the mecca of electronic dance music festivals, Tomorrowland.

So, without further delay, here is Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 by Samuel Barber. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the composition Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 by Samuel Barber can be found here.

The link to the video for the composition Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 as seen in the movie Platoon can be found here.

The link to the video for the composition Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 as performed by DJ Tiesto can be found here.

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Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

One thought on “Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #2/50: Adagio For Strings, Opus 11 by Samuel Barber”

  1. I had forgotten that scene in in Platoon. The music was perfect for drawing gutting your emotions.
    I’ll add adagio to my new learning.

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