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The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings [Hardcover]

Thomas Larson

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More About the Author

Critic, journalist, and memoirist, Thomas Larson is the author of three books: "The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease," Hudson Whitman Press; "The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's 'Adagio for Strings,'" Pegasus Books; and "The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative," Ohio University Press / Swallow Press, which is in its fourth printing.

He is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader and teaches in the MFA program in creative nonfiction at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. He holds workshops on memoir writing and delivers multimedia talks on music, the musicians of the Titanic, the craft of writing, and his heart disease. His essay series, "The Social Author," which explores the digital-age shift from the private to the public persona of the writer, is at the website, "Guernica."

His Kindle books include "What Exactly Happened: Four Essays on the Craft of Memoir," "We Are Their Heaven: A Family Memoir," "On the Poetry of James Wright," and "Awash in Celebrity Authors."

He edits manuscripts and coaches writing students. His website is When not on the road or spending time in Santa Fe, Larson lives with his partner Suzanna Neal in San Diego.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.6 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Part biography and part tribute/analysis of the quintessential American dirge 8 Oct 2010
By Midwest Book Review - Published on
"The Saddest Music Ever Written, The Story of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings" is part biography and part tribute/analysis of the quintessential American dirge. Familiar to multiple generations, Barber's Adagio for Strings has been performed following the deaths of President Roosevelt, Kennedy, and former movie star Grace Kelly. It was also part of the theme music for the movie "Platoon," grieving the reality of the war in Vietnam. More recently, it was performed in Great Britain to acknowledge the tragedy of the twin towers' destruction of 9-11-2001. The Adagio for Strings, written in 1936, when the composer was in his twenties, is described as "The Pieta of music. It captures the sorrow and pity tragic death: listening to it, we are Mother Mary come alive - holding the lifeless Christ on our laps, one arm bracing the slumped head, the other offering him to the ages. The Adagio is a sound shrine to music's power to evoke emotion. Its elegiac descent is among the most moving expressions of grief in any art....No sadder music have ever been written (p.7)." In "The Saddest Music Ever Written...," Larson asks, "What is its sorrow about (p. 14)?" He concludes there are perhaps three possible answers: "It is about Barber's melancholia and depression; it is about the aloneness we feel when a loved one is lost or dies,...and it is about our alienation from ourselves as Americans: (p. 14)' or about the death of part or parts of the American dream. Much in Larson's analysis delves deeply into the composer's personal life history and also into his own family and life history. It is as though the experience of the "Adagio" is a common thread of deep, universal, yet intensely personal significance. Surely this book is testament to the importance of music in expression of emotions, specifically grief. As the author states, quoting Chekhov, "'The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them (p. 131).'" He continues on, "What is it about ourselves that we aren't grieving that makes this music so fresh? What is the Americanness of its sorrow? How is it that Barber's dirge became a dual-sided coin, the suicide of Vietnam and the patriotism of 9/11 - the ambivalence digging the well of our national depression deeper and deeper (p. 131)?" The author's partial conclusion comes after many digressions and comparisons to similar works by other composers: "Despite its commercial uses and despite Menotti's and Barber's fears, the Adagio's true legacy is that even in consort with an emotionally and technologically evolving culture, it somehow is outlasting its appropriators......the piece will survive because its memorial value will survive: on a hot, overpopulated planet, fighting over scarce resources, we will need time for and places in which to grieve our catastrophes...(p. 227)." "The Saddest Music Ever Written, the Story of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings" is a full and moving testament to this seminal work.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Overstated 20 Nov 2012
By Firebrand - Published on
For fans of the Adagio, this book lovingly (and almost obsessively) chronicles what the author (who must be the biggest fan of the work that there is) believes is the widespread cultural impact of the work, and the work's effect on him personally.

But there are problems. Larson grossly overstates his case. The Barber Adagio is indeed a sad work, but the "saddest ever written" is purely subjective. The universe of music offers an exhaustive list of works that are sad as well as more significant, just as popular, and also routinely played at funerals, in films, etc. "SaddEST" is subjective, yet Larson argues for his champion very desperately.

But worse, as others point out, Larson goes out of his way to shoehorn and project tragedy, and the Adagio itself, into every aspect of Barber's life and history, which is highly questionable, and highly subjective.

More than anything else, this book is about Larson, and Larson's wild guesses about Barber and the "meaning" of the work.

The author's fierce advocacy and very personal devotion to the work makes for an interesting and controversial read, but it is a dumbed down simplification that exaggerates and even invents extramusical projections and endless "what ifs" into a piece of music, robbing the music itself of its mystery, and the power to stand on its own.

Readers must be warned that this is one person's editorial. Not fact.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An Adagio is Worth a Thousand Words or More 7 Jan 2013
By evaB - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A lot can be said about Barber's Adagio and Larson has said a lot, a lot, and even more. Perhaps some music professionals could say more more, but I was daunted sometimes by the language already in place, its complex and fine grammar of musical description or what sounds like it to my very naive ear. Yet there is no denying the sweep of the book and the author's wide-ranging passion for and yes, obsession with, Barber and his amazing sound. This may not be a book to be read in one sitting; it reads like an opera--many characters, many settings, many themes but one tone--of lament; and it can be annoying when it depends on imaginative speculation, but it makes its own kinda of tribute that is eventful. In short, this book feels like a monument to the ineffable glory of America's dirge.

(And as an interesting aside, it does a good job of reminding us, mired in ipods, of the original and compelling power of radio, of people gathering around the sound of the human voice and music rather than browsing the visual, each to their own separate universe).
10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars a disappointment 13 Aug 2011
By an observer - Published on
as an admirer of barber's work, i so looked forward to this book. but it's a grievous disappointment.
the author, seemingly obsessed with the adagio, endlessly repeats the same banal and obvious
pop-culture observations about it; literally, the same cliches are hashed over and over about it, on and on,
chapter after chapter, as if the needle was stuck on an old lp record.

more disturbingly, he presents a highly editorialized view of barber's life and music through the prism/diagnosis
of depression - nearly every work of barber's is characterized as 'mournful'; every tender melodic passage
as 'rueful and sad'. hello!?! anyone who listens to barber's music will recognize its zest and love for life; its beautiful,
heartfelt, antic spirit. yes, some of his work is impassioned, and dark; but much of it is brimming
with joy and happiness. his lyricism is not 'mournful' as frequently described here, but
glowing, tender, even downright sensual.

and i don't believe barber's life was one solely clouded by darkness and despair. he had his ups, his downs,
his joys, his heartaches, like so many other great artists. but to paint him singularly as a tragic, depressed figure,
ever haunted by the monumental success of the adagio, is ridiculous and historically inaccurate.
well, i guess it makes sense, coming from a book entitled 'the saddest music ever written'.
funny, i have never found the adagio sad - stately, profound, uplifting, yes,
but the 'saddest music ever written'? give me a break!
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Some Insight 22 April 2013
By freddy53 - Published on
Verified Purchase
A lot of history about the man and reasons why he wrote this amazing piece of music...I liked it a lot.
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