Sad Songs of Hope and Joy

We have recently given some attention to the Molto Adagio from Barber’s String Quartet in B Minor, Opus 11. The deserved fame of this beautiful and tragic middle movement contrasts with the angular and tempestuous outer movements, which are as well-known as one might expect for a twentieth century American string quartet. That the Adagio should be such a cultural phenomenon in its own right testifies to this contrast; it can be no coincidence that the movement itself is in B Flat Minor, whose constituent notes are diametrically different from the quartet’s home key, producing a concomitant divergence of mood. The Adagio has something in common with Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet, considered here previously, in that although it began life in quartet form it was later transplanted to full string orchestra, in order to explore the original material with a wider and richer palette of sounds. Like the Eighth Quartet though the Adagio remains at its most perfect in the raw and brutally intimate setting of the quartet rather than the more impersonal orchestral environment.

Another characteristic shared by the two works is that they are often described as “depressing”. It is not hard to see why; both are impressed with a deep solemnity and a profound tonal darkness. Yet it is not a description with which I am comfortable; it is one thing to call the Adagio sad or melancholic, which it undoubtedly is, but “depressing”, if taken in its verbal rather than merely adjectival sense, implies not just that the music exudes despair, but that it engenders like despair in the listener. This is certainly not my experience of it. The Adagio has gained popularity as a soundtrack to occasions of mourning, such as those following 9/11 and the Japanese earthquake last year. Why is it considered so suitable for such events? It surely cannot be to compound the gloom. It seems more likely that its true function is to try and make sense of suffering which is often described as unimaginable. Hence it takes music, the most powerful and expressive of all art forms, to imagine the suffering. Once this can be done the suffering can be understood, and thereafter the process of conquering it can begin. Far from being depressing, music such as the Adagio can, by offering some insight into the pain of others, be a source of hope and catharsis.

Certainly the pleasure of music such as the Adagio, imbued as it is with such depth of sorrow, can be exhausting, and there will be times when the listener prefers to stay at home rather than embark on the tiring emotional journey it demands. But those who undertake the journey, suitably equipped, can expect to be rewarded not with misery but with a joy made all the more poignant by the misery which preceded it. Genuinely depressing music is surely that which cheapens human experience and which would have benefited from never having been composed, but I’m not going to start on John Cage again.