Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings

After Kristy dumped me early in the fall of 1975, I returned to spending most of my time with the arsty-campy crowd that gravitated to Mark Z*’s room in the French House. Almost all of the usual suspects had returned–Cynthia, the voice major, Michael, the Chinese/composition major, David, the intense Russian/German major, Thom Klem, and Lacy anwho was majoring in comparative literature and string bass. A new person also joined the group-a small, neat little girl named Elizabeth whose father owned a factory. She and Cynthia eventually became lovers.

David had moved off campus to a small brick rambler a few blocks behind the French House. We often went there to cook meals, drink, watch television, and drink some more. David was a polymath–every week he seemed to be studying another language. But he was practically-inclined as well: his father had taught him about electronics and how to work with wood. He built a massive bookcase on which he proudly displayed his books and records. He had fine leather-bound volumes of the works of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in Russian, Proust in French, and Nietsche in German. He also had a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and lots of wonderful art books on Kandinsky, Van Gogh, and Vermeer.

David’s record collection was awesome. Most were Deutsche Gramophon recordings of German music-Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. On our visits to his house he would pull out some new purchase and play it for us on his wonderful stereos, whose speakers he had built himself. David liked modern music as well, especially avante garde works and once drove us all away by playing some god-awful piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen, the most unlistenable composer who ever lived.

Someone in our circle bought a new recording of Thomas Schippers conducting Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. In the 24 years since then, this piece has become one of the most overplayed pieces, being used to flog almost every product or as the swelling background music in some poignant death scene of movies. Back then, however, no one had so profaned it yet, and it pretty much took our clique by storm. I immediately went out and bought a copy and spent a number of hours sitting in my room listening to it while bemoaning my fate at having been dumped by Kristy.

Barber originally wrote this piece as the second movement of his String Quartet, Opus 11 in the late 1930s. Arturo Toscanini liked it so much that he convinced Barber to rescore it for orchestra and he premiered it in 1938. It is probably the most-played piece by any American composer. It starts out quietly with a sad melody. The strings then begin to overlap one another as they building to a frenzied climax before finally returning to the sad melody of the beginning.

Re-reading the above, it seems I’ve painted a picture of myself back then as a morose, depressive type. Extravert Geminis rarely stay blue for long, however, and I spent many a fine moment hanging out with my clique. I use the term “extravert” in the Myers-Briggs sense of one who derives their energy from being around people. In many way, I remained shy and having been rejected by Kristy made me even more timid around women. That is probably the reason I ended up gravitating toward and spending more and more time with Lacy.

Lacy didn’t live in the French House but in another dorm in our large sprawling complex. As I said, she majored in comparative literature and string bass. She was thing and the sight of her hoicking around a huge upright bass when she performed in her orchestra was quite comical. I found her quite attractive. She had high cheekbones and cute freckly skin. What caught everybody’s attention, however, was her huge mane of fiery red hair. She wore it long and combed out, but it had a natural wave which made gave her a kind of wild air. This was belied by her breathy, little-girl voice.. People would stop and stare at her hair, constantly remark about it, or even just reach out and touch it, which I’m sure didn’t at all make her self-conscious.

Lacy had a sweet disposition, coupled with a wicked sense of humor. For that reason she liked hanging around the artsy-campy crowd that met in Mark’s room. I suspect that like me, she lived vicariously through watching the antics of the theatrical, extroverts in that group.

After Kristy dumped me (there I go again), I found myself talking more and more with Lacy at the cafeteria. Like me she literature, studying languages (French and German), and listening to good music. We therefore had a lot to talk about. But I was so retarded, I never would have put the moves on her hat it not been for a Vittorio de Sica film.

Lacy liked foreign movies almost as much as I did, and we both got excited to learn that the local art-house cinema was going to show that Italian film maker’s latest film, “A Brief Vacation.” We didn’t go together, but we were surprised and happy to see each other at the cinema and I sat a few rows behind her.

This movie has to be one of the most poignant and heart-breaking flicks I have ever seen. An Italian housewife has a pig of a husband, disrespectful teenage kids, and lives near poverty in a tiny flat in some dreary suburb of a large industrial Italian city. She works long hours in a factory and then must come home to work like a slave. Everyone yells at her and treats her like a doormat.

She develops a cough and goes to the doctor. He diagnoses her as having tuberculosis. The National Health Service orders the standard therapy for her-rest and recuperation at a sanitarium in the Alps. There she blossoms-she reads books, people pamper her, she meets a young buck and has an affair, she gets involved in a protest to improve the working condition of the nurses and aides who work in the sanitarium. The ugly duckling becomes a swan. Cinderella finds her fairy godmother and marries the prince. One day on her visit to the doctor, he tells her she’s completely recovered and can return home. Her lover begs her to run off with him, but she decides she cannot. The final scene is burned in my mind-she steps off the train in a grimy station. Her family instantly launches into her, making fun of her new image and berating her for having abandoned them while she went off and pampered herself. The camera pulls away and we see a person very alone.

When the lights came up, there was a stunned silence in the theatre. I had tears in my eyes and when I looked over at Lacy, she looked up at me and I saw she was crying. I hurried over to her and she hugged me and sobbed. We went to a quiet café and talked and then she and I walked back across campus holding hands. We became lovers that night and she remained my girlfriend for the next two years.

Eventually, I learned the secret of her timidity. Her parents had divorced and she had a an older brother who had developed schizophrenia. He had started out a genius, but then had a psychotic episode. He ended up living at home. That was one of the first broken families I had ever spent any time with (the divorce rate was much lower back then) and attitudes toward people with mental illness was even worse that it is today. So much pain hung in that family, so it was remarkable that Lacy was able to become a functioning member of society.

I don’t remember any more why we broke up. That was over 20 years ago. Being the type of person I was back then, I can well imagine that I found some excuse based on “my needs” or some reason why she didn’t measure up to my standards. This is the curse and blessing of middle age: we’ve learned how to be nicer people, but we remember all the people we’ve hurt along the way. Hope I haven’t damaged my karma too much.

Buy CD or MP3 of Samuel Barber’s Adagio

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