Andante Music

Singing of saddest thought

Adagio for Strings has been played at the funeral of John F. Kennedy (above) and several other luminaries over the years.

Adagio for Strings has been played at the funeral of John F. Kennedy (above) and several other luminaries over the years.   | Photo Credit: U.S. Capitol Historical Society

Can we say that any exposition of Bhairav, a solemn, sombre raga, will always be sad?

When I stepped out of Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. into a bright, sunny, cold and somewhat unfriendly morning, my first step ever on American soil, my earthly possessions amounted to two suitcases mostly full of books and audio cassettes, $500 of borrowed money in my wallet and an unreasonable amount of blind optimism in my heart. The first item I bought with the borrowed money was a tape recorder from the electronic superstore Circuit City; both device and store have gone the way of the horse and buggy since. The first cassette I played on the tape recorder was a collection of Tagore songs; the sonorous baritone of Debabrata Biswas filled the halls of my first night at dormitory at Ohio State University and took me home across the oceans.

With all the people that mattered 10,000 miles away, the heavy weight of my Ph.D programme sitting on my mind, the fall colours slowly disappearing and a hostile winter breeze challenging me each time I stepped outside, these songs made the barrenness of the immediate reality bearable and shined fairy light on the uncertain future. I remember one song, based on Raag Bhairav, ‘Ajana Sur Key Diye Jaye Kane Kane’ (‘Who whispers unknown melodies in my ears?’), where the singer sings of a melody adrift and grieving for the lute (symbol of the beloved); and finally wishes for a tryst with his/ her beloved (symbolised by a star) on a spring night. My American and Indian friends, alike, found the song, which rejuvenated me and pushed me forward, sad and mournful. I was disturbed and intrigued by the discovery.

One could probably explain the “sad and mournful” interpretation by saying that my friends were reacting to just the melody as they did not understand the Bengali lyrics. The slow tempo of a song plays an important role in evoking a thoughtful mood in us; anything we can’t tap our feet to appears sombre to most of us. My personal reaction to the song was heavily influenced by nostalgia and associations.

Adagio for Strings

I think we can all agree that the way we feel while listening to a piece of music is influenced by a combination of melody, lyrics, rhythm and personal associations. What about slow, instrumental music that we don’t have any personal associations with? Could there be something intrinsically sad about such music that makes most people melancholic irrespective of their upbringing and cultural background? Is any exposition of Bhairav, a solemn, sombre raga, intrinsically sad? Just to clarify, we are talking about crushing sadness, the kind that makes you curl up on the floor and cry your heart out.

There is perhaps one such piece, one of the most performed concert works by an American composer. Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ is a work synonymous with irreplaceable loss and deep despair. Leonard Slatkin conducted the BBC Orchestra on September 15, 2001, to mourn the 2,996 people who had died four days before in the Twin Towers. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a four-term president who steered the nation through the Great Depression and World War II, passed away, three major radio stations, WGN in Chicago and ABC and NBC in New York, played the same composition to express the collective sorrow of the nation.

Music critic Alex Ross says in The Rest Is Noise: “Whenever the American dream suffers a catastrophic setback, Barber’s Adagio for Strings plays on the radio.” America mourned the deaths of Senator Robert A. Taft in 1953, Albert Einstein in 1955, and President John F. Kennedy in 1963, with ‘Adagio for Strings’.

Barber (1910-1981) was one of the most famous American composers of the 20th century. His best-known works include the lyrical ‘Knoxville: Summer of 1915’ for soprano and orchestra, the wistful ‘Violin Concerto’, the ‘Piano Sonata’ (premiered by the great Russian virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz), the Pulitzer-winning opera ‘Vanessa’ and of course, the ubiquitous ‘Adagio for Strings’, America’s state funeral music that found its way into pop culture with Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Originally composed as the opening part of the second movement of Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11, the composer later scored it for string orchestra at the request of conductor Arturo Toscanini, who gave the first performance of the arrangement in 1938 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

Ironically, in his later years, Barber grew tired of the Adagio’s fame. He felt that he’d written equally notable pieces (among them the violin and piano concertos) and wanted those performed as well. He requested that his most famous piece, ‘Adagio for Strings’, not be played at his funeral.

The music begins softly, almost as a whisper, with brooding, sad chords that build on the seed of subdued grief and rise to a crescendo of all-pervading, apocalyptic sadness before falling back into the melancholy of the opening.

If I look for acceptance, reconciliation and hope in the face of overwhelming grief, the ‘Adagio’ offers me none. Each throbbing progression is a reminder of profound loss, each rise a wailing refusal to accept the irreversibility of such a loss, each fall a helpless surrender to the cruel and inexorable law of our universe.

But the more I have heard it, the more the ‘Adagio’ has become less funeral music and more an expression of the true condition of our incomplete existence — yearning, searching, or maybe trying to be one with the supreme consciousness, wanting to be complete. It is truly one of the most profoundly transcendental concert works ever written.

Sudipta Bhattacharya designs big data systems to earn money, writes to make sense, and plays the classical guitar to escape drudgery.

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 4:41:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/singing-of-saddest-thought/article17325397.ece

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