Format Hardcover
Publication Date 09/15/10
ISBN 9781605981154
Trim Size / Pages 9.3 x 6.3 in / 272

Request a review copy or press kit

The Saddest Music Ever Written

The Story of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings

Thomas Larson

An exploration of the cultural impact of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the Pieta´ of music, and its enigmatic composer.

"Whenever the American dream suffers a catastrophic setback, Barber’s Adagio plays on the radio.”—Alex Ross, author of The Rest is Noise

In the first book ever to explore Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, music and literary critic Thomas Larson tells the story of the prodigal composer and his seminal masterpiece: from its composition in 1936, when Barber was just twenty-six, to its orchestral premiere two years later, led by the great Arturo Toscanini, and its fascinating history as America’s secular hymn for grieving our dead. Older Americans know Adagio from the funerals and memorials for Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy, Albert Einstein, and Grace Kelly. Younger Americans recall the work as the antiwar theme of the movie Platoon. Still others treasure the piece in its choral version under the name Agnus Dei. More recently, mourners heard Adagio played as a memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Barber’s Adagio is truly the saddest music ever written, enrapturing listeners with its lyric beauty as few laments have.

The Adagio’s sonorous intensity also speaks of the turbulent inner life of its composer, Samuel Barber (1910-1981), a melancholic who, in later years, descended into alcoholism and severe depression. Part biography, part cultural history, part memoir, The Saddest Music ever Written captures the deep emotion Barber’s great elegy has stirred throughout the world during its seventy-five-year history, becoming an icon of our national soul.

Thomas Larson is the author of The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. For twelve years, he has been a staff writer for the San Diego Reader where he specializes in profiles, narrative nonfiction, and investigative journalism. A dynamic speaker, Larson presents workshops on memoir writing and lectures on Samuel Barber’s music throughout the country. he lives in San Diego with his partner Suzanna Neal.

Buy it now in print: Amazon Barnes & Noble IndieBound

Buy it now in ebook: Amazon Barnes & Noble Apple Kobo Google

Endorsements & Reviews

“This is a wonderful examination of the effects of an artistic artifact on culture and, conversely, the various uses (undreamt of by the composer) to which the music has been put by others. It is also a personal testament to the power of a cultural artifact on an individual. Highly recommended.” Library Journal
“If Aaron Copland was the Updike of American music, then Samuel Barber was its Cheever. Larson provides a rich biographical context for Barber’s fervid creativity.” The New Yorker
“Written with great compassion and earnestness. An intimate history of this great work of music. it is the soundtrack of the soul.” Phyllis Nordstrom Classical Voice of New England
“Rarely, if ever, have nine minutes of music been subjected to such intense cultural, historical, and emotional analysis.” Eugene Drucker, violinist, The Emerson String Quartet
“An exploration of a fascinating composer, a case study in the cultural appropriation of works of art, and a very personal meditation on the power of music.” Kevin Bazzana, author of Lost Genius