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20th Century Classical Music: Analysis of Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber

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Samuel Barber (1910-1981) composed Adagio for Strings during a very successful period of his work from 1936 to 1938.[1]  It was originally the second movement of a string quartet before Barber rearranged it for string orchestra.  The fact that it came from such a successful time in Barber’s life is ironic considering the piece’s reputation as an unofficial national anthem of sorrow.  Not only was the piece played following the deaths of Presents Roosevelt and Kennedy, it has been used in films such as Platoon and The Elephant Man.[2]  A stylistic analysis of Adagio for Strings sheds light on how Barber’s famous piece has made such a strong emotional connection with so many listeners.

[1] Artsworld: n.a., n.d. Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber; available from; INTERNET; Accessed 20 October 2003.

[2] Steve Schwartz, Adagio for Strings, op. 11 by Samuel Barber; available from; INTERNET; Access 20 October 2003.


Adagio for Strings’ theme can be divided into one simple three quarter-note motive that is imitated at chromatic intervals both up and down by the violin, viola, and cello.[1]  The first time the theme is presented, the motive is repeated than raised and repeated in rounds before resolving to a sustained tonic and pronounced cadence.  This stair-step melody builds tension that is intensified by a deliberate and unhurried crescendo.  This tension is then balanced by a descending series of quarter-notes that develop the original the note motive.  As the notes descend, the expectation that the motive will be repeated by the listener is not met.  This builds and releases different tensions created by the alternating and methodical stair-stepping of the ascending run.  The phrase then resolves to another sustained tonic and pronounced cadence.

[1] Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings, (U.SA.: G. Shirmer, Inc, 1939) 3.

Here's a Performance of the Piece for Those Unfamiliar with it

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The Neo-Romanticist, Samuel Barber.

The Neo-Romanticist, Samuel Barber.

For the duration of the piece, the theme is developed similarly: Barber uses simple whole and half-step patterns to move the motive up and down the scale at a measure pace.  At the same time, there are also constant variations in tempo, timber, dynamics, and pitch that keep presenting the reader with different expectations that at times are fulfilled and at others not.  The tempo itself never changes too drastically but rather ebbs and flows with the rise and fall of the quarter-note motive throughout the development.  The timber, on the other hand, is developed by imitating the theme in rounds between the violin and viola and, on one occasion, even the cello imitates the stair-stepping run of quarter-notes that is the theme of this piece.  That is to say, Barber uses the pitch to determine the dynamic level as well.  As the melody climbs up the scale, the dynamic level increases, which reinforces and heightens the tension caused by the ascending notes.  As the theme descends down the scale, the dynamic level returns to a quieter level to create a sense of finality or satisfaction within the repeating phrase that is emphasized by the use of pronounced cadences at the end of each instance of the phrase.  The pitch, aside from dictating the dynamic level, at times also transposes the melody to a higher octave.  This creates, again, an even heightened sense of emotion.  The chief effect of such subtle development is an aching emotional reaction in the chest of the true listener.

Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings Sheet Music


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The other stylistically important and emotionally powerful aspect of the piece is the homophonic texture. Only one instrument develops the theme at a time while the rest sustain on triadic harmonies of the tonic and the dominant. The bass and cello form the bottom portion of harmonic chords that, again, add even more emotional intensity to the piece. This intensity reinforces the development of the melody as it ascends before strong cadences at the end of the phrase relieve that tension.

The significance of Barber’s style is his treatment of melody and his ability to embellish even a simple theme into something powerful through the simple techniques of imitation and development. Barber is considered by critics to be a melodist, and this melodic emphasis led some of his contemporaries to dub him a “neo-Romaticist”.[1] His use of classical instrumentation and simple melodic device in Adagio for Strings does mirror the music of earlier ages. It is this mastery of appropriated melodic theme and development that has found Adagio for Strings a way into the hearts and imagination of so many listeners. This is because the chief affect of Barber’s master is its communication to even the uneducated listener an emotional condition in a way that words fall short of. This uneducated listener need know nothing, or understand anything to experience, upon first listening, the full emotional power of Barber’s work.

[1] Steve Schwartz, Samuel Barber; available form; INTERNET; Accessed 20 October 2003.

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coach on November 30, 2010:

A song that is so epic and strikes to the heart of man so well. Im sure we can all relate to the solemn feeling this music envokes in myslef.

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