Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings

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You might have heard this string ensemble somewhere at some point in your life. The first time I heard it was when President John F Kennedy was assassinated. I was 8 and my father had the VOA and AIR broadcast updates running continuously on our huge NELCO valve radio. The piece seared it’s way into my consciousness.

Those days, when being a socialist in America could get you ostracized and thrown in jail, Americans viewed India with some amount of scorn. To them, India was a nation that was firmly in the clutches of the Soviet Union, in spite of its non-aligned status. Under Eisenhower, the Americans had all but given up trying to form any long-term bilateral relationships with us. And the over-sanctimonious attitude of Indian politicians at the time, who liked to see themselves as conscience-keepers of the world, didn’t help a bit.

Ordinary Indians however, even kids (thanks to our primary schools), knew a great deal about President Kennedy. We were taught not only about his life and his wartime exploits, but were also made to memorize his rousing speeches for our elocution contests. I remember one that I memorized. Somewhere in the middle of it were these words…

“…. We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too……”

We were kids. We had no clue about his connections with Mafia boss, Sam Giancana or with his father’s bootlegging operations or his romantic liaisons with movie star, Marilyn Monroe. We looked up to the guy.

About the assassination itself, I was too young to absorb the import and the specific details on a day to day basis. I did however pause in my play whenever Voice of America put on Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings‘ between news updates on the assassination. The adagio begins softly and rises in a gradual step-wise motion, much like a hesitant climbing of a grand staircase. The composition is considered by many to be the most popular of all 20th century orchestral works.

The composition touched me deeply, even as an 8 year old. As the Italian word ‘adagio‘ suggests, this is a slow musical piece. The plaintive swirls of the strings, the soaring violins and the crescendo, they gave me a sense of tumultuous emotion working up to a fever pitch. It made me feel like I was on a roller-coaster that, for reasons unknown, was creeping forward in slow motion even on the downward plunge. It sounded as if a thousand tortured souls that were perched on it were looking up to the skies and screaming all at once, “Why? Oh why?”

In as far as music can actually speak to you, the adagio conveyed graphically to me a terrible sense of loss, of despair, of being stricken beyond redemption. Maybe the reason why the adagio affected me that much was the fact that around the same time, my young mind began to sense the cracks starting to appear in my parents’ marriage which, from then just went downhill all the way and I watched it unravel. Maybe those tortured screams of “Why?” ricocheted within me too. They do even now sometimes. Thus, whenever I hear this piece, I pause and sit myself down till its over. The same ‘why’ in conjunction to Kennedy’s assassination, reverberates through America even today, through this amazing composition.

Growing up, Samuel Barber’s adagio and I met a few times over the years. I remember three of those times. One was the Vietnam War movie ‘Platoon’ which had the piece as it’s theme music. The adagio fit the essence of the movie beautifully, holding hands in perfect harmony with the narrative, which was all about overwhelming pain, bravery beyond and terrible treachery, as seen through the eyes of a rookie GI.

The second was after the death of Princess Di when BBC Radio played it constantly for a few days following her tragic demise. The third was after the 9/11 attacks. The piece was performed at The Royal Albert Hall in London and shown live on TV.

There was one other time. It was two decades back. The adagio was playing while I was making love and it heightened the whole experience unimaginably. I admit I couldn’t time my crescendo with the one in the composition but I enjoyed the feeling all the same. At least this time I lasted as long as the adagio did. And I heard it once again over the car radio on my way to work today, it being the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.

On one level, I crave listening to this astounding strings ensemble and on another it starts this welling up from within and I want to clamp my palms over my ears and shut it out, though I never actually do.

If you’d like to listen to the composition, here is the YouTube link to it. Just leave your baggage outside the door. Come in with just your soul, settle down, close your eyes and let the composition wash over you……

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