Barber's 'Adagio' Is Not The Saddest Music In The World How did Samuel Barber's stirring, lush work for strings — music that has become America's semi-official music of mourning — morph into a beloved and endlessly remixed dance floor anthem?

From Funerals To Festivals, The Curious Journey Of The 'Adagio For Strings'

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Samuel Barber's "Adagio For Strings" is one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF BARBER'S "ADAGIO FOR STRINGS")

KELLY: It's become America's semi-official music of mourning, used at FDR's funeral, after JFK's assassination and September 11. But somewhere along the way, it went from an anthem of sadness...

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF BARBER'S "ADAGIO FOR STRINGS")

KELLY: ...To one of joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIESTO'S "ADAGIO FOR STRINGS")

KELLY: For our series American Anthem, NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas digs in to figure out how one piece of music has been transformed for different generations.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: The Barber adagio has been recorded dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Three of those have been made by conductor Leonard Slatkin.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF BARBER'S "ADAGIO FOR STRINGS")

LEONARD SLATKIN: This piece starts just with a single very long melodic line in the violins, which then goes over to the violas. Then it goes over to the cellos. It reaches a very strong climax...

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF BARBER'S "ADAGIO FOR STRINGS")

SLATKIN: ...Followed by what seems like an interminable silence. And then the music reappears for one last time, and we hear at the very end two chords that might as well be saying amen.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF BARBER'S "ADAGIO FOR STRINGS")

TSIOULCAS: Barber's "Adagio For Strings" arrived at the right moment. America was still hurting from the Great Depression, and Europe was sliding into war. The piece had its debut on November 5, 1938, on an NBC radio broadcasts conducted by Arturo Toscanini, who had already seen many of his European Jewish colleagues murdered.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF BARBER'S "ADAGIO FOR STRINGS")

TSIOULCAS: And it was the piece that conductor Leonard Slatkin turned to after September 11. At the time, he was chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which was slated to perform at a festive annual concert in London. But four days after the attack, Slatkin just couldn't play the happy music that was on the program, so they played the adagio.

(SOUNDBITE OF BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BARBER'S "ADAGIO FOR STRINGS")

SLATKIN: I know that when it was over, I'm visibly crying. And I just left the podium. And I went in my dressing room and collapsed.

TSIOULCAS: By then, the work had gained such emotional heft that it had become a signpost for sorrow in the popular imagination. It's been used to cast a pall in numerous movies, perhaps none more so than the 1986 Vietnam War film "Platoon" where the adagio swells again and again to evoke the pain and devastation of war.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PLATOON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Fire in the hole.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

TSIOULCAS: Samuel Barber was in his mid-20s when he first wrote the piece as the slow movement to a string quartet. Today, this is how many younger people experience his adagio...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIESTO: Holland, make some noise.

TSIOULCAS: ...As a heart-thumping, fist-pumping dance music anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIESTO'S "ADAGIO FOR STRINGS")

TSIOULCAS: That's DJ Tiesto's version. It's just one of easily a dozen reworkings of the Barber adagio, and it's got nearly 90 million views on YouTube. English musician and producer William Orbit knows its power in dance clubs firsthand.

WILLIAM ORBIT: If I'm DJing, no matter what the type of music I'm playing - it could be some pretty grindy tech house, which is what I love, or it could be a party set, which is just what everyone wants to hear - someone is going to come up and say, please play the adagio.

TSIOULCAS: Orbit was one of the first electronic musicians to adapt the work.

ORBIT: It's got that rare thing. It sounds simple, but it isn't.

TSIOULCAS: His version of the adagio played on synthesizer went to number four on the U.K. Singles Chart in 1999.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIAM ORBIT'S "BARBER'S 'ADAGIO FOR STRINGS'")

TSIOULCAS: Orbit says he can't quite put his finger on what it is about Barber's original that makes the adagio so appealing to so many people unless it is that undefinable simplicity.

ORBIT: I see it as layers of mist that shift. And that's the beauty, that it's amorphous layers. And they - the thing is, because they don't have this obvious structure, they just wrap themselves around whatever thoughts you've got without being cloying, without - I think that's just partly its potency.

TSIOULCAS: In the remixes of the piece, the music moves from a place of collective mourning to collective ecstasy, says Elizabeth Margulis. She's a music cognition researcher at the University of Arkansas who studies how people experience music.

ELIZABETH MARGULIS: So sort of getting swept along and feeling like - people say, I feel like I was the music, you know? You lose a sense of your own kind of bounded self and feel like you get really gripped and taken along with what's happening musically. So I think that's part of what the adagio is being asked to help affect.

TSIOULCAS: She says it has this much to do with what listeners bring to the music as it does with what the composer put in it. So in the eight decades since it was written, subsequent generations have brought their own experiences to the adagio, and that's made it even more meaningful, says William Orbit.

ORBIT: It's like a kind of musical block chain because every time, it's - I mean, there's so many films and potent moments in history and funerals and FDR's funeral and "Platoon." And everybody's got all that, and it stacks up in their appreciation. So when they hear it, it's loaded with more and more things. It just picks up this potency as it travels down the decades.

TSIOULCAS: And sure, speeding up the piece and putting a thudding beat underneath it changes the emotional quality of the music, but conductor Leonard Slatkin thinks that even in its original form, Samuel Barber's "Adagio For Strings" holds another kernel of emotion.

SLATKIN: This piece - the way it ends gives you a glimmer of hope, not sadness at all.

TSIOULCAS: And maybe it's that glimpse of something else in the adagio that has helped it means so much to so many. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF BARBER'S "ADAGIO FOR STRINGS")

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