The American composer Samuel Barber (born in 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania) was only 27 years old when he wrote the piece of music that would come to define his entire career. He would live to be 70, and he would win two Pulitzer Prizes for works composed during his final three decades, but even before he’d turned 40, he had responded to an interviewer’s praise for his most famous work by saying, “”I wish you’d hear some new ones. Everyone always plays that.” The piece to which Barber was referring was his Adagio for Strings, one of the most beautiful and recognizable works in the modern classical music canon. Submitted by Barber some nine months earlier for consideration by the great Italian conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, Adagio for Strings made its world premiere on this day in 1938 to a live radio audience in the millions.
“Simplice e bella“—”simple and beautiful”—were the words that Toscanini reportedly used to describe Barber’s piece after hearing the NBC orchestra’s first rehearsal of the Adagio. This was high praise from a man who had become the single most important figure in classical music in America since his 1937 emigration from Italy, yet who almost never performed works by American composers. Toscanini chose two pieces by Barber, however, as the centerpieces of his November 5, 1938, program broadcast from Studio 8-H in Rockefeller Center.
Adagio for Strings had begun not as a freestanding piece, but as one movement of Barber’s 1936 String Quartet No. 1, Opus 11. When that movement provoked a mid-composition standing ovation at its premiere performance, Barber decided to create the orchestral adaptation that he would soon send to Toscanini. In later years, the piece would be played at the state funerals of both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, taking its place as what one observer has called “the semi-official music of mourning.”
The continued popularity of the Adagio for Stings—it ranks consistently among the most downloaded pieces of digital classical music and has been voted the world’s “saddest piece of music” by BBC listeners—owes much to its prominent appearance in the soundtrack of the 1986 Oliver Stone film Platoon. But it was director David Lynch who preceded Stone in bringing Barber’s Adagio to Hollywood, using it to beautiful effect in the final scene of his 1980 film The Elephant Man. “That piece of music is so beautiful,” Lynch later said in an interview with National Public Radio, “that I’m surprised it’s not in almost every film.”