Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is one of the most popular 20th-century orchestral works, but its charm is not limited to classical enthusiasts. It can be heard in films, TV shows, video games and dance clubs as well as the soundtrack for public memorials. It is often cited as one of the saddest pieces of music and its appeal seems to be universal.
Initially the second movement of the composer’s 1936 String Quartet, Op. 11, it was later orchestrated for strings and sent to the conductor Arturo Toscanini in 1938. On November 5, 1938 in Studio 8H (current home of Saturday Night Live) in Rockefeller Center, Toscanini conducted the premieres of both Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Essay for Orchestra with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in front of a studio audience broadcasting to millions over the radio. In 2005 the recording from the initial broadcast was preserved in the National Recording Registry at the United States Library of Congress.
1938 Original broadcast of Barber’s Adagio for Strings
Barber’s Adagio has become a universal lament in times of tragedy. It began with the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. When radio was looking for solemn music to play as the nation grieved, the availability of Toscanini’s recent recording of the piece was there to fit the need and people began to recognize it, though sadly not its composer. It has since become associated with funerals and sad occasions, having been played at the funerals of Albert Einstein and Princess Grace of Monaco as well as memorials for John F. Kennedy and the victims of the September 11th attacks.
Last night of the Proms at Royal Albert Hall in England in 2001
A Tribute to the victims of 9/11
The piece has also been featured in numerous ways in the popular culture. It appeared in films like Platoon and The Elephant Man as well as numerous TV shows such as Seinfeld, ER, The Simpsons, South Park, How I Met Your Mother and Big Love. Adaptations of it have been used in major video games especially as electronic dance music. Remix artists and DJs have made several popular versions of Barber’s Adagio. Most notable of these are Madonna producer William Orbit whose electronic version inspired numerous dance remixes and DJ Tiësto, whose YouTube video of it currently has almost 13.5 million views.
William Orbit: Adagio For Strings
William Orbit - Adagio For Strings (Ferry Corsten Mix)
Tiësto: Adagio For Strings
Electric Violinist Linzi Stoppard Rocks Adagio For Strings
(Electric Violin Remix)
Pacific Symphony will be performing Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings this week:
February 23-25, 2012. For tickets, visit pacificsymphony.org