Review Summary: It’s that piece of music that all of you have heard.
From the sullen sense of bleakness that the opening motif incurs, to the smudged harmonies of whirring passages, to the magnificent emotional heights that fall gloriously yet hopelessly back into brooding strings of notes, this piece maintains a moving atmosphere all the way through, and explores sadness into musical depths that you may not be aware exists. With such rich depth of harmony and a tempo that seems to put everything around you in slow motion, you’ve probably heard this piece soundtrack a particularly emotional moment in TV or film. One might argue it’s been used to point of being cliché, but none other piece that has tried to replicate the effect that this piece gives has come even close.
What makes this piece so effective are the glimmers of hope that Barber teases us with. Every so often he’d play around with major inflections that would cast their hands above the sea to wave at the disappearing land for help only to be consumed by the ocean’s bleak waves. There is one moment, just after half way through the piece, where the string orchestra ascends in slow arpeggios and it feels like the body might make it out of the water as the chords express insurmountable hope… only to pause… and give up... and return to the desolation that it came from.
In ten minutes, Samuel Barber has illustrated a story that is imprinted in our minds, and what makes this piece inarguably a classic is that it conjures feelings from music that I’ve not experienced from not just any other piece of music, but from any other art form there is. To have added lyrics would have been an insult to this piece’s beautiful craftsmanship, and that’s when you know that you’ve got a perfect piece of instrumental music.