Gann on Barber’s Adagio

Kyle has a brilliant little explication of the Barber Adagio as study material for first-year harmony students. Professional that he is, he can see the strengths in a work he frankly disrespects. It’s a little odd though that he says:

That opening 4-3 suspension, with its repetitious iv7-V chord movement, comes back eight times in one form or another (six of them literal) in seven slowly creeping minutes, which is partly why I don’t much respect the piece – Barber stumbled across a nice opening gesture and milked it for more than it was worth.

…and then elsewhere talks about “composing generously” and the necessity of “giving” the audience the musical idea (with Philip Glass as a prime example) . Now, it could be that Gann thinks that Barber was too generous, that one can have too much of a good thing. But who decides? It’s not even clear that “the audience” has decided that Barber is generous enough, given that the iconic use of the Adagio doesn’t at all depend on using the whole thing. Indeed, it’s “of-a-piece-ness” is one of the things that makes it iconic; you can use any part of it and it’s still identifiable as “Barber’s Adagio”. In any case, it’s obvious that the public has “gotten” (and got even before the movies, even before FDR’s death) a work of very little melodic interest, made mostly of scalar crawlings. When you finally get some melodic skips, it’s cataclysmic. (Much the same melodic critique can be made of “O Fortuna”). Simplicity is hard, and taste unaccountable, and perhaps most analysis is just an attempt to rationally justify a gut reaction. And for those of us who never become iconic, there’s a tendency to sour grapes. I’ve long been aware of the irony of a gay Jewish pinko  from Brooklyn writing the iconic Western tune, and wish I could cash in on that beef money with a symphonic hoedown of my own, but you can’t make lightning strike, even with a kite in the air. But now I’m thinking it might be fun to write a piece on Barber’s hooks (iv7-V, 4-3 suspensions, looping scalar motions, those inversions) and make it sound as different from the Adagio as possible.

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2 Responses to Gann on Barber’s Adagio

  1. kishnevi says:

    Well, you can try…
    I’d say the power of the piece comes exactly because he kept it simple: it’s really just a long series of chordal progressions that flow out of each other.
    But I’m still not sure what Gann’s point was in that post. Was it too harmonious for him? Or does he just feel that any composition worth its salt should be too tough to be taught in Composition I?

  2. Jaylin says:

    I’m not quite sure how to say this; you made it exleemrty easy for me!

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