Description and Excerpts

Why Does Barber's Adagio Break My Heart?

by Dale McGowan, PhD

Available for publication

Approach, Level and Scope

Why Does Barber's Adagio Break my Heart? is a 50,000-word book targeted to the general music enthusiast. Though an ability to read music is assumed, no additional knowledge of music theory is required. The language and style of the book is conversational and engaging without condescension. It seeks to educate, but to do so with an eye toward the wonder and amazement that should naturally result from an increased understanding of the sound language of music. If there is a single vision, it is the desire to draw the reader's attention to that wonder, to pause and be fascinated by things that had once seemed inaccessible - the very things that give music its power over us. The most distinctive feature of this book is its application of the concepts in Part I to a moment-by-moment understanding of a single piece of music. I am unaware of any other text that has made use of this effective technique to illustrate the specific elements of music in action, allowing the reader to draw connections between a moment of experience and a precise musical gesture or effect.

Table of Contents

Prelude page 1

Part I. The Road to the Adagio

Chapter 1. Time and Space 6

Chapter 2. The Science of Sound: Tension and Release 18

Chapter 3. The Tritone Knows What You Did Last Summer 31

Chapter 4. Colors in the Palette, Part One: Pitch and Scale 42

Chapter 5. Colors in the Palette, Part Two: Triads 55

Chapter 6. Colors in the Palette, Part Three: Timbre 63

Chapter 7. Home and Away 66

Chapter 8. The Changing Narrator 84

Chapter 9. The Beach Ball and the Bowling Ball 93

Chapter 10. The Art of Context 103

Part II. Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings

Chapter 11. Samuel Barber and the Adagio 113

Chapter 12. First Things First 129

Chapter 13. Into the Adagio 134

Chapter 14. Postlude 195

Bibliography and Suggested Further Reading 200

From the Prelude

The very first time I heard it, it broke my heart. I heard a piece of music that was the essence of devastated grief. Not just general sadness - this piece was all about the very kind of inescapable loss I had felt five years earlier when my dad died, suddenly and young. In it was that same mix of anguish, denial, rage and heartsick acceptance that I had felt. The music put me right back in that place, and I cried like I hadn't since the funeral. You might assume there were some powerful lyrics about the loss of a loved one, or at least an evocative title, something to account for the precision of the emotional bull's eye it had made - but no. It was Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, an eight-minute piece of music for string orchestra alone, without lyrics, without a leading title - nothing but notes. After I recovered, I was awestruck by the experience. How did he do that? How did Barber take a collection of pitches - just vibrations in the air - and make me feel something so specific emotionally?

There is a way to move beyond oooohh and aaaahh to some very satisfying explanations of how music does what it does. This book is for those who would like to try.

From Chapter I

Time and Space

Music is a slippery subject for study. Visual art generally stands still, allowing the viewer some control over the experience. Music necessarily moves forward, relentlessly, thwarting our attempts to get a firm grip. Suppose you tell a friend that you went to the Chagall exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum yesterday, and she asks, "Oh - how long was the exhibit?" The question doesn't really make sense. At best, you'll interpret it to mean How long were you there? - and your answer could be six minutes, an hour, or all day. There isn't a set duration for visual art. But if you say "I went to hear the Bill Evans Trio in concert yesterday," and she asks how long the concert was - well, it's a sensible question. Two hours and forty-three minutes, you might say.

The difference is a critical one. At the Chagall exhibit, you could look at each and every painting for three minutes or skip entire rooms. Stand and gawk at The Green Violinist for hours. Get in close for a look at one brushstroke. Step back, cross your arms pretentiously, and you can see the whole thing at once. You can compare one part to another, move your eye left and right and left again, top to bottom, leave the room for a potty break and come right back to looking at that flying cow in the background. Stare at that cow for twenty minutes if you like. Oh, it's not a cow. Compare background to foreground. Time is not a constraint.

Now on to the concert. The first piece begins. At any given moment you are experiencing only a fraction of the entire piece, one moment in time, and as soon as it happens it is gone, replaced by another and another in an unchangeable sequence. You can't move your ears from left to right and back again at will, and you certainly can't step back and look at the whole piece at once. You can't stand up and yell "Stop! Hold it right there so I can really listen to that moment!" because - even if concert security doesn't drag you out - holding one moment of the music utterly destroys it. All you hear is the chord at that moment, no rhythm, no meter, no tempo. All the elements of time, so crucial to making music what it is, are suspended, and suspended fatally. You might as well try to understand the processes of the human body by saying "Hold that heartbeat and breathing still for a few minutes."

"If you take a cat apart to see how it works," said Douglas Adams, "the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat."

Music has a set duration, just as a painting has set dimensions in space. And there is the heart of the difference between music and visual art, and the heart of the difference in what each can and cannot do.

Visual art transmits meaning by use of shape and color distributed through space.

Music transmits meaning by use of pitch and (tone) color distributed through time. That makes music terribly slippery and hard to study. But it also gives music a singular advantage over visual art in capturing and recalling emotional experience, since our experience of life plays out over time.

Life unfolds, one moment after another. Plans are made, expectations built up - then they are fulfilled, or delayed, or dashed on the rocks, over time. The fact that music shares that critical element with life itself - that it unfolds over time - is one of the most fundamental insights contributing to an understanding of its power to communicate in the language of emotional experience.

From Chapter VII

Home and Away

You've been away for weeks. It's been a great trip, but you're tired of living out of a suitcase, sleeping on friends' sofas with their cats, eating fast food. All you want is the familiarity and comfort of your own bed, your own things. Home.

It's a powerful thing, home - and we've all yearned for it in one way or another after being away for a day or a month or a year. But suppose on the drive home you run into a detour: a poultry truck has turned over, and now 4000 chickens are free- ranging on the freeway. The road will be impassible for hours. You curse mildly and drive off onto a side road to work your way around the problem. After a few miles, you feel yourself getting further and further off the track.

Crunch, clatter-clatter clatter-clatter - your car breaks down. You roll to a stop, get out, lift the hood, act like you know what you're looking at, admit that you don't, curse moderately, then hike to a farmhouse nearby. The farmer's family takes you in, gives you dinner. You ask to make a phone call, and they say "Phone?" Fine. Too dark to go on anyway.

They offer a bed for the night. You end up staying a few days, which turns into a month of helping with the beet harvest. You find yourself drawn to the captivating farmer's daughter/son, which doesn't thrill the farmer. You've seen him sharpening the tines of the pitchfork. So in the dead of night, you and your beloved sneak out together, headed for your home to start a new life. But just as you reach the main road with your thumb out, up pulls the sheriff, who happens to be the farmer's brother. He throws you in jail. And as you sit on your cot, watching your cellmate Otis sleeping off his hootch, all you can think about is that elusive destination: home.

You wanted to get home when you were on the freeway, sure - but now home has taken on positively mythic proportions. You remember your front door as a palace gate, your bed as a mountain of goose down surrounded by attendants peeling grapes and singing classic Motown.

It's an age-old story, burned deeply into the human psyche: the sometimes-agonizing quest for home. Think of Odysseus wandering the Mediterranean in search of Ithaca, Hebrews in search of the land of milk and honey, even the idea of humanity working its way back to Eden.

Films that aren't beating the dead horse of unrequited love often return to the story of the search for, or return to, home. Think of the different ideas of "home" in the movies Gone with the Wind, The Trip to Bountiful, Apollo 13, Cast Away, Planet of the Apes.... And need I mention the two films that brought the Odysseus complex to generations of kids and elevated home-lust to a fine art --- The Wizard of Oz and E.T.

Just as in much of written drama, the search for home is the main device, the main underlying mythical archetype, that serves as the emotional fuel of music. There are many ways in which composers can establish the idea of home, then take you away and tempt you with the promise of return. Composers in the Classical Period liked sonata form, which introduces the protagonist (the first theme) starting out from home (the exposition), takes it through a moderately deep and somewhat darkened forest for about two minutes (the development section), then returns it safely home (the recap), where the theme is once again intact, relatively unscathed by its ordeal.

(N.B. Chapter continues with Listening Guides for the opening movements of Mozart Symphony No. 40 and Beethoven Symphony No. 5, illustrating two different compositional treatments of the search for home.)

from Chapter XIII

Into the Adagio

(N.B. The mildly technical language of this chapter has been introduced and explained in preceding chapters.)

It starts with a single note, a lone B-flat, unsupported by harmony. That sets a tone of isolation, of bereavement, and focuses our attention on what will begin as a single line of melody. In literature we seek out characters through whom we experience the story. In music it's the melody serving as hero-protagonist, our guide through the emotional events that follow. And this one begins alone.

One important question is calling out from previous chapters: where is home? We don't have to think of this analytically: most music makes a decisive point of establishing home, right from the start, so we can then feel the bends in the road that lead us away, wander us through in strange territory, tease us with the idea of return, and finally bring us back.

It's also important, remember, to determine whether the key is major or minor. If it's minor, we're not necessarily dealing with "home" in a positive light. The darkness of the minor can represent an undesirable reality, a sadness or grief or darkness that we wish to escape, but can't. There are five flats in the key signature, which can mean D-flat major or B-flat minor - two very different potential realities or "homes" for this story. But the absence of an opening chord means we haven't clearly established which it is. A single pitch is ambiguous. We don't know if that Bb is the root of a chord, or the third, or the fifth, or something else. Each one can imply a different starting point, and perhaps a different home.

The listener, it must be noted, can't see the key signature anyway, so let's leave that behind. It's our ears that are searching for clues as to which way this story is headed. Some harmony would help, and at last we get it, in the form of an E-flat minor triad. The next chord is F major. That's subdominant to dominant, iv to V: it's like the bony finger of the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come pointing at Scrooge's own headstone. We haven't yet heard the tonic triad, you understand, but once you hear iv to V, we have two legs of the stool. Bb minor is pretty much inevitable: we've heard the harmonies that point most powerfully toward it. To put it more tritely, it's like hearing the first five knocks of "Shave and a Haircut": two more knocks are inevitable. Someone will do it. Try it in a public place.

So here's that iv-V progression, with the "inevitable" Bb minor resolution:

[graphic insert of altered opening bars here]

Well, thanks for coming! The show's over in three bars if Barber does that. We have a three-legged stool, iv-V-i. He promised doom and delivered.

But wait a minute. Unexpectedly, it doesn't go that way. That next chord is not B-flat minor after all - it's G-flat major! Instead of iv-V-i, we got iv-V-VI - a deceptive cadence! It's as if Scrooge lunged at the arm of the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come and knocked his finger off its mark, pointing instead to a hopeful future:

[graphic insert of actual opening bars]

That's a powerful, surprising, hopeful moment - and you can feel it, the threat of the minor batted away by that G-flat major chord. And that G-flat is followed by A-flat major - Aflat, not A-natural - which points away from our minor home. More than that, it's the dominant of the major form of the key signature, a neon arrow toward the bright side. Take those two chords together and you have IV-V of D-flat major. So immediately following a strong suggestion that B-flat minor is our home, we get a lunge toward the more hopeful D-flat major.

It's the G-flat chord that did it. It exists in both keys, as VI of B-flat minor and IV of D-flat major, just as the sound "wee" exists in English (as in "us") and in French (meaning "yes"). When that G-flat appears, the orchestra seizes the chance and uses the shared chord to drop through a trapdoor into the major key….

Just two bars later, just as we're establishing the hopeful major key, we are pulled forward in a circle progression to a G-flat chord. G-flat…now why does that chord sound familiar...?

Oh no. It's the trapdoor. Never trust the G-flat chord in this piece. It's a double-agent, able to pull us up out of grief but just as capable of dropping us back down into it. And sure enough, the G-flat chord is redefined again, from IV in our major key to VI in our minor key, followed again by the pointing finger of Scrooge's most fearful specter: iv-V in B-flat minor. Followed by...silence.

I won't dwell in this level of detail in the rest of the piece because I won't need to. If you take a moment to fully appreciate the significance of what's happened in these few bars, the whole of the drama will roll itself out before you. Nearly the entire secret of what makes Barber's Adagio work is contained in this first passage. The dark minor is suggested; we grasp at the hope of the major; then just as we've convinced ourselves we can escape the minor, we are thrown back, not to the minor, but to that fearful finger, pointing to minor. And all in a single phrase.

I've laid out the technical details: now for the psychological. Recall the time of your deepest grief. In the depths of unbearable loss, we wish nothing more than to deny the reality of it. It didn't happen, it couldn't have happened, it just isn't real. For fifteen years after my father's death, I dreamt periodically that he had reappeared, that it was all a misunderstanding. I took every opportunity to suspend the reality of his passing, replacing it in my mind with a more desirable outcome, sometimes in rational terms, sometimes in irrational lunges at hope. But the reality always reasserted itself, first at the wake, then at the funeral, then in his absence, moment after moment, all the times he "should" have been there.

In composing the Adagio for Strings, Samuel Barber demonstrated a profound understanding both of the unfolding nature of human grief and of the ways in which he could use the temporal medium of music to fullest advantage in mirroring that grief.

No, you know what, that's not it - it isn't a mirror, not a reflection of grief. By taking the listener through emotional landscapes of its own creation, on its own terms, at its own speed, music is as close as one can come to actually re-experiencing the process and texture of unfolding emotion. It doesn't show you a reflected image of the landscape of loss, it takes you through it - a very different notion. And Barber's Adagio is so moving, so affecting, precisely because as we pass through that territory, we reel with the shock of recognition. Emotionally, psychologically, we've all been here before; we can feel the congruence to our own experiences of grief and desperate hope as it unfolds through time. In a nutshell, it works so very well because he got it so very, very right.

Listen now to the orchestral recording of the Adagio on the enclosed CD, just to the point we've reached. Hear how we begin in deep mourning and isolation, are lifted into the possibility of redemption by the IV-V in D-flat major, then dropped back into the darkness by iv-V in minor. This is the subtext of the entire piece: a desperate struggle to escape from the reality of grief (B-flat minor) into the consolation of hope (D-flat), only to slide back into an inevitable reality, over and over. If Barber had simply laced the piece with hamfisted deceptive cadences and harmonic shell games, the effect would have been minimal. Instead, he demonstrated a breathtaking comprehension of both musical and psychological processes, then wrote a piece of music so astonishingly well-matched to the unfolding process of grief that one can hardly help being moved by it.

We've established the central narrative; now let's watch it unfold….

©2005 Dale McGowan