"Adagio for Strings"
1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die
One-hit wonders are no big deal in the world of rap, pop and rock. So many artists come in and out through the door of radio play that they become easy to forget. A one-hit wonder in the world of classical music is a rarity, because the listening populace only has so much room for well-known classical composers. Therefore, when a Gershwin makes one great piece of music, the world automatically checks in whenever they release something new. Such was not the luck for Samuel Barber.
For those in the know, Samuel Barber is far from a one-hit wonder. Barber was one of the biggest names in American classical music for nearly 50 years. But one piece, his "Adagio for Strings," was so critically acclaimed and has been so ingrained into culture that most didn't bother to check out the rest of his work. Many don't even realize that it was only one movement in his 1936 String Quartet Op. 11. The piece was played at services for Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, as well as being featured in countless films and television programs, making it one of the most recognizable pieces of all time. Constant reuse shouldn't be the only reason you remember it however.
The key to Adagio's greatness is not in its complexity, but rather in its emotional power. The piece is, of course, composed only for strings, but there aren't any virtuoso moments here. The melody and countermelody are slow and reflective, and their B-minor tuning can have no other effect than a sorrowful one. As critic Alexander J. Morin wrote, the piece "rarely leaves a dry eye." Any mature listener has had a moment that this music will bring back, and it will take them to that low place.
The good news is that the climax will lift the listener right back out of that funk. Again, it's a simple construction, just manageable chords. Things take an upturn at the five minute mark, and move gradually towards the climax at 5:30 until 6:10, with the strings rising in pitch and volume until it could almost be confused for happiness. Is it uplifting? No, but like at any good funeral, there is time taken to remember the good times with the deceased. The climax serves as a hopeful moment, an acknowledgement that the sun will rise tomorrow. The song returns to its original sad riff as it is written in "arch" form, but it isn't given the same amount of time to stew as when the movement began, so the listener is happier leaving the song than they were during its opening moments.
There are some times when a one-hit wonder is only good for the one hit. There are other times when the rest of their music is quality, but no one noticed. Barber is the latter, but his one hit was such a classic that it eclipsed the rest of his repertoire.
INTERESTING FACT: The BBC ranked "Adagio for Strings" as the saddest song ever written, as of 2004. Therefore it's interesting to note that two of the world's highest ranked DJs, Armin van Buuren and Tiësto, have done remixes of the track.