|Barber Adagio Book|
The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings"
Pegasus Books, ISBN: 978-1605981154.
Hardcover, September 2010; paperback, March 2012.
A YouTube video of my one-hour "Saddest Music" multimedia presentation at Warwick's Bookstore, La Jolla, CA, Tuesday, November 30, 2010.
In the first book to explore Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, music and literary critic Thomas Larson tells the story of the prodigal composer and his seminal masterpiece: from its composition in 1936, when Barber was just twenty-six, to its orchestral premiere two years later, led by the great Arturo Toscanini, and its fascinating history as America's secular hymn for grieving our dead. Older Americans know the Adagio from the funerals and memorials for Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy, Albert Einstein, and Grace Kelly. Younger Americans recall the work as the antiwar theme of the movie Platoon. Still others treasure the piece in its choral version under the name "Agnus Dei." More recently, mourners heard the Adagio played as a memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Because of its 75-year use at countless memorials and funerals, Barber's Adagio is arguably the saddest music ever written: pound for pound, far more tears have been shed for Barber's work than have been loosened for any other of the great laments in music.
"The Saddest Music Ever Written is as moving and eloquent as the music Larson writes about, and a fascinating meditation on how our lives and our culture connect."
—Michael Sherry, Gay Artists in Modern American Culture
"To say that The Saddest Music Ever Written is an in-depth study of the Barber Adagio would be an understatement. Rarely, if ever, have nine minutes of music been subjected to such intense cultural, historical and emotional analysis. With keen sensitivity, Larson places this iconic work in a biographical (and autobiographical) context, and within the cultural history of the United States from 1936 until the present. The book is filled with illuminating insights into Barber's other works, his psychology and the milieu within which he lived and worked, and may contribute to an enhancement of this immensely gifted composer's stature. The emotional journey through the life and times of Samuel Barber ends quite movingly with a visit to his grave."
—Eugene Drucker, violin, Emerson String Quartet, author of The Savior: A Novel.
"Thomas Larson's The Saddest Music Ever Written, a historical overview of an American music classic, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, is without question one of the most multi-layered books on music I've encountered. Not only does the reader learn of the varied, and often iconic, history the Adagio has held and continues to hold around the world, but we become intimately acquainted with the composer and the book's author on a deep level. In a sense it is a biography and autobiography in one volume, and is certain to leave any reader with a sense of profound appreciation to both Barber and Larson for revealing their most intimate thoughts, feelings and life story in one masterful opus."
—Daniel Glover, pianist
"The Saddest Music Ever Written is about much more than a single piece of music. It is an exploration of a fascinating 20th-century composer, a case study in the cultural appropriation of works of art, and an often very personal meditation on the power of music."
—Kevin Bazzana, author of Lost Genius and Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould
Saddest Music "is a wonderful examination of the effects of an artistic artifact on culture and, conversely, the various uses (undreamt of by the composer) to which the music has been put by others. It is also a personal testament to the power of a cultural artifact on an individual. Highly recommended."
—Library Journal Bruce R. Schueneman, Texas A&M University Library, Kingsville
Reading the book, "I suspect I found myself thinking of other contenders for the saddest music distinction that were overlooked. (In addition to my own idiosyncratic selections, the last movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique surely a worthy contender for the title is never even mentioned.) However, I gradually became increasingly sympathetic to Larson's thinking and respectful of the challenge he had set for himself. I was also impressed by his citation of the importance of the late cantata The Lovers, a masterpiece that has yet to be recognized, and which disproves the often-encountered assertion that Barber composed nothing of value after Antony and Cleopatra. By the end, when he discusses America's attitude toward grief, and presents the Adagio as representing a different view of America from Copland's equally ubiquitous "Fanfare for the Common Man," I felt deeply moved. 'The power of positive thinking is also the power of denial, which cancels the need to mourn, a feeling common with the generation after that of the Second World War. After the war and with a booming economy, the somber mood quickly fell out of favor. Since 1945, American mourning has too often been lite . . . . Hint at, but avoid true grief. Don't get maudlin either. We've got the weather and the sports on tap. The Copland-Barber divide reminds us how precisely sculpted the emotional content of our culture is.' Whether or not one agrees with his conclusions, Larson leaves us with much to reflect upon. As personal as it may be, this book is . . . important and valuable to a deep understanding of Samuel Barber."
—Fanfare Nov/Dec 2010 Walter Simmons
"If you love the Adagio and the rest of Barber’s work as much as I do, you’ll devour the book—which contains a fascinating history of the genesis of the Adagio and its various forms, which include a string quartet movement and a choral work (Barber’s setting of the “Agnus Dei”). There are also fascinating historical anecdotes about the life and stellar career of Barber (1910-1981)—including his personal and professional relationship with composer Gian Carlo Menotti, his operatic triumph with Vanessa (1958), and his failure with Antony and Cleopatra (1966)—as well as some nuanced, layered thinking about the relationship between music and melancholy."
—Florestan (Editor) Classical TV Blog