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 stereo, 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 thin 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 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 loved literature, studying languages (French and German), and listening to good music. We 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. 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, and I admired how Lacy took it in stride.

I don’t remember any more why we broke up. That was over 30 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

Claudio Monteverdi: Vespro Della Beata Virgine (1610)

During the spring semester of 1974, I read voraciously. In English class we studied “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Windhover,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman. Inspired by my history of western civilization class, I read Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” My friend Paul Mankowski wrote and told me that he had loved Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” so I read that, too. He also mentioned a writer whose name was new to me, James Joyce. One day I picked up a copy of “The Dubliners” and was smitten, especially by the story called “A Painful Case.” But when I read “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,” my life changed.

That book made me want to become a writer. It captured so well the internal struggles of an intellectual trying to balance his love of knowledge with his faith. I remember one part where Joyce describes a boy listening to a priest’s sermon about eternity. The priest said that God would punish those who sin with eternal damnation. He then told a story to help people imagine how long eternity was. The priest told them to imagine a mountain of sand on a beach. A bird flies down, picks up one grain of sand, and takes it away. Imagine how it would take the bird to remove that mountain of sand. Then imagine if the bird had to move as many mountains of sand as there were grains of sand in that mountain. The story gave the boy nightmares, the point of which is what kind of religion is it that gets you to be good  by using threats of punishment? Especially for little children who are supposed to be innocent.

My relationship with my parents at this time became somewhat strained. I often argued with my father. He was a bit like the argument clinic in that Monty Python sketch. No matter what point of view you took, he seemed to contradict it. And yet, if you contradicted him, you certainly didn’t win any brownie points. I have already said that he was worried that my reading Dostoyevsky would turn me into a communist. If I threw out an idea that contradicted his, moreover, he would blame it on “those atheistic college psychology professors.” I think my mother sympathized with me, although she once told me “You think too much, and about the wrong things.” Maybe she was just worried that I was spending too much time by myself, listening to music and reading.

Sometimes I escaped to the house of my brother Bob and his wife, Cindi, who lived over the state line in Niles, Michigan (birthplace of Ring Lardner.) Cindi was working on finishing her bachelor’s degree, and sometimes read me poems that she had written. From time to time they would go on a date and I would baby sit for my brother Bob’s daughter, Karen, who was about three or four. She was a cute baby and had taught herself to read about that time. To show how out of touch I was with reality, I once asked her if she would like to me to read her a story. When she said yes, I pulled out my copy of “A Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man,” and started reading it to her. After a few paragraphs, she slipped off my lap and went off to bed. She eventually did grow up to be smart as a whip, graduating cum laude from Indiana University, and is a gifted writer.

One day at the over-priced record store at the local mega-mall, I found today’s piece. I’m not sure why I bought it, except that it was a double album on a very expensive export label and someone had accidentally priced it as a single record. It has turned out to be one of my all time favorite works of music.

Written in 1610, it stands as one of the pivotal bridges between sacred and secular choral music, out of which modern opera arose. It contains five sung psalms, interspersed with eight other pieces that are hymns of praise to the Virgin Mary. I’m not sure of the origins of some of these texts, but some are quite sensual:

“As long as the king is at his table, my spikenard gives forth sweet perfume.”


“Thou art fair, my love, beautiful and comely, O daughter of Jerusalem.”

And even

“My beloved is radiant white and ruddy: the hair of his head is like the crimson of the king, bound in little plaits.”

But what even today sends chills down my spine is the singing. Some of the melodies are based on traditional Gregorian chants. Monteverdi alternates passages given to the choir, with solos, duos and trios sung by sopranos or tenors. These voices sing in a pure, unaffected pre-operatic style, which is so simple yet beautiful. I also loved a technique that he employs several times throughout the work. He often starts out a section with a little musical interlude played on the high-pitched and difficult to play medieval cornetto, the valve-less precursor to the trumpet. When the soloists being singing, eventually one or more of the voices will echo the melodies that were played by the cornetto earlier.

Another effective technique is how he uses the soloists. Sometimes one leads and sings the melody. When the one finishes, the other will sing the last phrase again, which give a hauntingly beautiful echo effect. I saw the Vespers sung several year ago in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. During some of these duos, they actually moved the second soloist to a different part of the church. In one of the most beautiful, “Audi caelum” the lead voice sings a prayer to God in heaven, asking “who is she who rises bright as the dawn?” The echo voice is supposed to represent God answering back to the supplicant. As the singer continues the prayer, he eventually ends each phrase on a higher and higher note, until at the end, he resolves back to the beginning key.

The recording that I bought was by The Concentus Musicus under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Monteverdi Choir of Hamburg. It was issued on the Telefunken label in 1972, and I think it was one of the first recordings of its time to use all original period instruments. The liner booklet was quite a piece in itself, some 24 pages in length describing the characteristics of the instruments, the research to find the first edition of the score, and the structure of the work itself. Of a number of recordings I’ve heard over the years, this is clearly my favorite. Without hesitating I would choose it as one of my desert island disks.


Download MP3 or buy CD from Amazon here

Harnoncourt only available on CD of Vespro Della Beata Vergine from Amazon

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