This year marks the 100th birthday of American classical composer Samuel Barber (March 9, 1910 – January 23, 1981). But his famous work for string quartet, Adagio for Strings, lives on as a pop meme. Last week, the New York Times published a lengthy article that discussed how Barber’s piece embedded itself in the mainstream culture via its use as a soundtrack for film, television and radio.
For instance, the Adagio plays prominently in the violent, heart-rending death scene of Sgt. Elias, Willem Dafoe’s character in the Oliver Stone film, Platoon:
The Adagio accompanies a steroid-fueled beating in a 2004 episode of the potty-mouthed cartoon, South Park. In recent years, the Adagio made a leap into the clubs, most notably with William Orbit‘s reworking of the piece, which transformed it into a bittersweet trance anthem. After all, the dance floor is where many a heart is broken…
I wanted to know what makes Barber’s Adagio tick, what it was in the music itself that made it the go-to soundtrack for all things sad and sorrowful, from the death of a US president (it was used on the radio to announce the passing of Franklin Delano Roosevelt), to the final moments of a tragic freak (David Lynch’s The Elephant Man).
So I asked composer Patrick Grant to break it down for me. In this audio clip, Patrick discusses the inner workings of the Adagio for Strings:
Since the Times article came out, I’ve been looking for a pop music equivalent of the Adagio for Strings, a song that signals a kind of solemn reflection or grief. I landed on “Breathe Me” by Sia. Ever since its appearance in the excruciatingly sad finale of the HBO series, “Six Feet Under”, Sia’s track has become a musical symbol for pensive melancholy in the media. With its reflective opening piano, its pinched vocals and its bursts of emotional strings, “Breathe Me” underscored montages of struggling athletes overcoming adversity during the 2010 Winter Olympics. I believe I’ve heard it running under promos and fan mash-ups of the especially soapy bits on shows like Grey’s Anatomy.
At the moment, “Breathe Me” is being used in a trailer for some movie featuring brooding adolescents in love and overwrought dialogue. Don’t ask me who’s in it or what happens, I just know it’s all going to be very emo because the music tells me so.