Thomas Larson's new book "The Saddest Music Ever Written" examines in minute detail the inspiration for Samuel Barber's eloquently mournful "Adagio for Strings." Larson will discuss his book Friday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

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‘The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” ‘

by Thomas Larson

Pegasus Books, 262 pp., $26.95


This new book about Samuel Barber’s famous, eloquently mournful “Adagio for Strings” is 262 pages long. About one-fourth of those pages are eminently worthy of the music lovers’ careful attention. In those pages, author Thomas Larson probes the early development of the composer who was 26 when he composed the Adagio, and discusses the profound impact this tightly-wound, searing piece of music has had on the world since Barber wrote it in 1936.

We learn that the Adagio was written as the second movement of a string quartet, and that Barber knew right away he had done something special: “I have just finished the slow movement of my string quartet — it is a knockout,” he wrote. Barber soon orchestrated the Adagio for a larger string orchestra, the form in which the music is most often heard today, and later created a setting of the Adagio for an a cappella chorus to the Latin text “Agnus dei” (“Lamb of God”).

Larson lists an imposing lineup of dignitaries at whose memorials the Adagio has been played, from Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy to Albert Einstein, Grace Kelly, and the 9/11 victims. He tries to explain why we find the music so wrenching and moving, describing its tight arc upward and its spare harmonies. He discusses the fascination the music has exercised on filmmakers.

The biographical details included here are revealing, including the precocious 9-year-old Barber’s letter to his mother in which he confides, “I have written this to tell you my worrying secret,” which is that he doesn’t want to play football or be an athlete: “I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure.” By 14, the youngster was already enrolled in Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, where four years later he met his life partner, composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Ironically, when Barber penned the deeply sorrowful Adagio, he and Menotti were living in an idyllic cottage outside of Salzburg, Austria, a time both of them later remembered as “perfection.”

What about the remaining three-fourths of the book? Analysis of a piece of music that lasts between about nine or ten minutes (depending on the performance) can only occupy so much space. Then Larson is off on a round of anecdotes about his family, interpretations of Barber’s sexual history, and current political ruminations that add little to a consideration of the Adagio. Larson’s contention that “Barber woke up one morning during that bucolic Austrian summer of 1936 and took the call: You’re the one who is going to write the saddest piece of music ever written” seems almost risible. The writing style is not particularly graceful (“But I elbow this notion further”). Nor is it clear what we are to make of such detours as “Here’s a letter I imagine my father writing, based on fragments of my family’s overheard talk and the few war novels I’ve read… ” or “This is how I believe the Adagio affected my grandmother.”

For many Adagio fans, it may be preferable to let the music do the talking.