The music sample below – “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber from 1936 – might also be called “Adagio for Tears” since it is known for evoking very powerful emotion and sadness among its listeners. In fact, a 2010 book by Thomas Larson on this classical piece is titled, The Saddest Music Ever Written. More on the book and its claim a bit later.
“Adagio for Strings” was reportedly one of President John F. Kennedy’s favorite pieces of music. In November 1963, on the Monday following his assassination, Jackie Kennedy had the National Symphony Orchestra perform the piece in his honor in a nationally broadcast radio concert, though performed to an empty hall.
In recent years, “Adagio” has received more popular notice as many film goers have been moved to tears by the piece, used as powerful soundtrack music in productions such as: David Lynch’s Elephant Man of 1980, Gregory Nava’s El Norte of 1983, Oliver Stone’s Platoon of 1986, and George Miller’s Lorenzo’s Oil of 1992.
In 2004, “Adagio for Strings” was voted the world’s “saddest piece of music” in one survey of listeners by BBC radio. The piece was also widely played in connection with events following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In earlier decades, at the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945, the song was played extensively. In the current digital era, “Adagio for Stings” is among the most downloaded pieces of classical music. In 2006 a recorded performance of “Adagio” by the London Symphony Orchestra was the highest selling piece of classical music on iTunes. There have even been some disco, re-mix, electronic dance, and synthesizer versions of “Adagio” – which perhaps were not what Samuel Barber had in mind in 1936, but have nonetheless helped broaden the audience for this music. More on these later.One of the most powerful and memorable uses of “Adagio for Strings” in a contemporary film score, comes in a scene from Oliver Stone’s Academy Award winning 1986 Vietnam War film, Platoon – a film sequence that seems to have had a particularly strong effect on a number of viewers. That scene is set in the jungles of Viet Nam, as U.S. Army Sergeant Elias, played by Willem Dafoe, who is wounded and running to catch a departing helicopter during a firefight with the enemy. In this case, however, Elias – the “good Marine in Vietnam”– has been betrayed by his arch nemesis, Sergeant Bob Barnes, played by Tom Berenger – the “bad Marine in Vietnam.”
Elias and Barnes have been feuding throughout the story, and now in this jungle fire fight, Barnes shoots Elias believing he has killed him. But Elias is only wounded. Meanwhile, Barnes tells the others that Elias was killed in the NVA fire fight.
“Adagio for Strings” plays during the ensuing scene as the wounded Elias emerges from the jungle, running for his life from the pursuing NVA, trying to reach the helicopter. But he is too late, as the helicopter has already lifted off. As “Adagio” swells, the scene is viewed from both ground level and from above in the departing helicopter, as Elias’ platoon mates look down on the horrific scene. There alone, is Elias in a clearing, being pursued by a dozen or more NVA, then shot repeatedly, falling to his knees in a brutal death. “Adagio” continues playing throughout the ensuing slaughter and as the helicopter rises farther and farther away from the scene.
One comment in an online forum at the website Oscar.net by film viewer Tim Anderson, describes his reaction to hearing “Adagio” in Platoon. He explains first that Stone had used the music earlier in the film – less noticeably and unnecessarily in Anderson’s view. But it is the Elias death scene with “Adagio” that really moves Anderson:
…When I first saw Platoon, I thought the use of Barber’s melancholic ode a bit overdone at the beginning. Indeed, I really don’t think it is necessary as an accompaniment to the new recruits getting off the airplane and entering “The Nam.” Perhaps Stone was attempting to depict the Vietnam conflict as a tragedy from the outset of the film. However, the use of the heavy strings of Barber, for me, overdid [it] …almost to the point of sentimentalizing the harsh reality of the war.
This changed later on, however. I am referring to the scene of Elias’ death. As he charges out of the jungle with virtually the entire NVA behind him, once again, the Barber Adagio is heard, swelling, till it is all we hear. No gunshots, screams, or helicopter blades; just the mounting intensity of this extremely spiritual work. The effect, to me, is completely unforgettable. Barber’s opus is already a completely emotional work, but to combine its sound with the image of goodness, of sanity in “The Nam” [i.e. Elias] being helplessly gunned down, is…well, indescribable. All I can say is, one must have no sensitivity at all not to find themselves emotionally weak during this sequence.
To be honest, I was never a huge fan of the Barber Adagio before seeing Platoon. That has changed; for me, the work is a virtual soundtrack to the tragedy of war…Vietnam, or any other. It has such a gripping, intense, spiritual feel to it…which is what makes it work so well for the moment of Elias’ death. To me, this scene is one of the most powerful sequences in any film I’ve ever seen. Mr. Stone deserves to be acknowledged for this brilliant teaming of sight and sound, one of the greatest in cinema history.
True, the Platoon sequence has especially powerful imagery, along with a compelling back story attached to specific characters, all of which make the music during the scene even more powerful. Yet even without the benefit of Hollywood imagery and story line, Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” historically, has had “stand alone” emotive impact on listeners from its earliest airings. So, how did this music come about?
Samuel Barber was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1910. At the age of seven he reportedly wrote his first music. As a 9-year-old he wrote a letter to his mother informing her that he did not want to play football or be an athlete, predicting that he “was meant to be a composer” — and adding that he was sure he would become one. When he was 10, Barber attempted to write his first opera, “The Rose Tree.”
At age 14, Barber entered the Curtis Institute of Philadelphia where he studied composition, voice, and piano, excelling in all three. Barber was one of the first students at Curtis in 1924, and it was there that he met his life-long friend, partner, and collaborator, Gian Carlo Menotti. The two friends became partners, bought a house together in New York state where they lived and worked for 40 years, although years later, they split apart. At 18, Barber won the Joseph H. Bearns Prize from Columbia University for his violin sonata, “Fortune’s Favorite Child,” since believed to have been lost or destroyed by Barber. In 1931, he wrote his first orchestral work, an overture to The School for Scandal, which premiered successfully in 1933 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Alexander Smallens. A number of other commissioned compositions followed. In 1935, at the age of 25, he received a Pulitzer traveling scholarship which allowed him to study abroad.Barber was only 26 years old when he wrote “Adagio for Strings” in 1936. He composed it during a summer in Europe with Gian Carlo Menotti, as the two were then living together in a cottage near Salzburg, Austria. Barber knew he had succeeded in writing a good piece of music, noting in a letter to one friend: “I have just finished the slow movement and it’s a knockout!” The music was not originally intended by Barber to be a stand-alone piece, but rather was the 2nd movement of his 1936 String Quartet No. 1, Opus 11. But when “Adagio,” at its premiere, resulted in a mid-composition standing ovation from the audience, Barber decided to adapt the piece for orchestral treatment.
In those years, one of the most popular showcases for classical music was the weekly NBC classical music radio show from New York featuring the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The conductor for those performances dating from about 1937 was the famous Italian conductor, Arturo Toscanini, who had recently fled Mussolini’s fascism during World War II. Barber submitted his orchestral version of “Adagio for Strings” to Toscanini in January of 1938.
But when Toscanini returned the score to Barber without comment, Barber was annoyed and avoided the conductor, believing his work had been snubbed. But Toscanini sent word through a friend that he was planning to perform the piece and had only returned the score because he had already memorized it.
Toscanini, in fact, was impressed with Barber’s piece. “Simplice e bella”—simple and beautiful—were the words Toscanini used upon hearing his orchestra’s first rehearsal of Barber’s composition. This was high praise from a man who had become the single most important figure in classical music in America, but who rarely performed works by American composers. In fact, Barber’s “Adagio” would be the first American piece he performed on the NBC radio show.On November 5th, 1938, the orchestral arrangement of Barber’s “Adagio” was given its world premiere by Toscanini, broadcast from Studio 8-H in New York’s Rockefeller Center with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The performance was heard by an invited studio audience, as well as millions of radio listeners. Radio, in those days, was the primary entertainment media, as there was no television. Barber’s music — at its airing by Toscanini in 1938 — fit the times in a kind of macabre way, both as lamentation and musical commentary on a world at war. “The world situation at the time, put simply, was that the world was falling apart…,” said Mortimer Frank, author of Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years, during a 2006 National Public Radio show on Barber’s “Adagio” and Toscanini. “Hitler had been elected chancellor in 1933. Mussolini, who had been elected earlier in Italy, became a tyrannical fascist. War was about to break out. Racism and anti-Semitism was rampant…”. But musically, by some accounts, Toscanini was exactly the right maestro to air Barber’s “Adagio,” giving it just the right touch. As Mortimer Frank explained during the National Public Radio discussion: “[O]n the one hand [Toscanini] is often considered the most dynamic, the most intense, the most powerful, overwhelmingly arresting conductor of his time. And overlooked in all of these reasonably accurate assertions is the fact that for all of the drama, for all of the power, for all of the intensity, he was also capable of wonderful delicacy and tenderness and gentleness. And he knew how to deal with a piece like this, which essentially is a very lyrical, gentle piece in so many ways, and present it directly and without – and this is the most important quality – without sentimentality, without excess, without making it sound overly sweet and cloying.” Toscanini also chose Barber’s “Adagio” for his first recording of American music. A New York Times review of Barber’s piece as performed by Toscanini in 1938, written by Olin Downes praised the work. Other critics, however, felt Downes had overrated it. Still, Barber’s “Adagio” went on to other performances, including a series of public performances, also on the radio, from Carnegie Hall in April 1942 by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. Both the Toscanini premiere performance of “Adagio for Strings,” and the Ormandy performance were captured on RCA Victor phonograph recordings.
Through the years, Barber’s “Adagio” has received the admiration and sometimes wonderment of other notable composers. Steve Schwartz, writing on Barber’s “Adagio” for Classical.net, has noted:
Composers like Aaron Copland, William Schuman, Roy Harris, and Ned Rorem – not all of them sympathetic to Barber’s music in general – look at this work and shake their heads, wondering how he pulled it off. They fall back on phrases like “finely felt,” “poetic,” “nothing phoney,” “a love affair.” There’s no real complication to the Adagio, no technique or unusual turn of harmony that holds the secret of its success. One cannot even pick one passage over another, any more than you can say one point makes the beauty of an arch. This is a masterpiece.
Mourning MusicIn 1945, when President Franklin Roosevelt died, radio stations of that day sought out appropriate music to use for national grieving, as all regular programming had stopped. According to author Thomas Larson, radio producers began playing Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” over and over again, catapulting Barber to fame at a time when few knew him by name. “They knew Beethoven and Brahms but not Barber,” notes Larson.
Still, the playing of Barber’s “Adagio’ during the Roosevelt mourning period, says Larson, “began the piece’s long trek…[to]… cultural appropriation.” In fact, “Adagio for Strings” would become something approaching official mourning music for fallen national leaders and other notable public figures – or as one account put it, a kind of “icon of the national soul.”“Adagio for Strings” was also played at the April 1955 funeral of Albert Einstein, and at Grace Kelly’s funeral in September 1982. Einstein was a lover of classical music, and Kelly, an American Hollywood actress before becoming Princess of Monaco, had a tragic death in an automobile accident at age 52. Her televised funeral was attended by Hollywood stars and royalty from around the world. “Adagio for Strings” was also played several times over BBC radio in 1997 at the death of Princess Diana. Mary Travers, of the 1960s’ folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary, had requested that “Adagio” be played at her memorial service. She died in September 2009 of leukemia. “Adagio” appears on the group’s final album, Peter Paul and Mary, With Symphony Orchestra. Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, explaining in his 2007 book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, that classical music in America “has not lost its binding power,” has also noted: “Whenever the American dream suffers a catastrophic setback, Barber’s Adagio plays on the radio.”
Agnus DeiIn 1966-67, Samuel Barber arranged his famous adagio for eight-part choir, in Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), a one-movement a cappella choral composition set to the Latin words of the latter part of the Mass. Agnes Dei was written for mixed chorus with optional organ or piano. The music, in B-flat minor, has a duration of about eight minutes. Among those recording the choral version have been, for example: The Corydon Singers in 1986; The New College Choir of Oxford, in 1997; the choir of Ormond College in 2000; the Robert Shaw Festival Singers in 2003, and others. The version in the Music Player below is by The Dale Warland Singers from their 1995 album Cathedral Classics.
Over the years, “Adagio for Strings” has become a fairly well-known piece, especially by those who follow classical music. And its trademark, even for the casual listener, is its emotional power. “You have to be a rock in the middle of nowhere not to have your gut wrenched out by this music,” said Ida Kavafian, a violinist and a Curtis Institute faculty member to New York Times reporter Johanna Keller in a March 2010 story on Samuel Barber’s centenary. Keller herself added: “…If any music can come close to conveying the effect of a sigh, or courage in the face of tragedy, or hope, or abiding love, it is this.”
Alexander Morin, author of Classical Music: Third Ear: The Essential Listening Companion, has noted that Adagio for Strings is “full of pathos and cathartic passion” and that it “rarely leaves a dry eye.” Others find the piece to be reflective, soothing, introspective and/or meditative. A few even find it celebratory at its climax. Tom Moon, writing in his book, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, finds “Adagio for Strings” to be “a singularly moving eight minute journey suited to any introspective occasion.” Moon also observes that Barber’s Adagio is “alternately stormy and tranquil, with brooding counterlines that rise from the cellos and bases answered by hovering sustained notes from the violins…” Barber’s piece, he says, “creates its own atmosphere.”
“Elephant Man Scene”
Film director David Lynch used “Adagio for Strings” in the final scene of his 1980 film, The Elephant Man. In comments to New York Times reporter Johanna Keller, Lynch described the music as “pure magic,” calling it “deeply spiritual and simply beautiful.”
In The Elephant Man film, the story focuses on the life and struggles of John Merrick, who is so deformed he wears a hood in public to hide his face. Merrick, played by John Hurt, is exhibited as an “elephant man” circus curiosity, beaten by hooligans, and otherwise abused by society and assumed to be stupid and ignorant. A London Hospital surgeon, Frederick Treves, played by Anthony Hopkins, finds Merrick in the freak show where he is brutishly managed. Treves is curious about Merrick’s medical condition, and eventually pays off the freak show manager for Merrick, and brings him to his hospital for research purposes. Still assumed to be ignorant, and viewed as repulsive by hospital staff, Merrick at one point astonishes Treves and the hospital administrator by reciting the 23rd Psalm from memory. Turns out that Merrick is quite articulate and intelligent. Although bound mostly to his hospital room, Merrick occasionally dines with Treves and his family and later receives high society guests, including the famed actress Madge Kendal, played by Anne Bancroft. At one point, Merrick is kidnapped by his former side show manager and put back in the freak show business in Europe, before he is rescued by Dr. Treves and returned to his hospital room. There he mostly reads and works on building a scale-model of a cathedral he can see from his hospital window.
Near the end of the film Mrs. Kendal has arranged a special evening for Merrick – an evening at the musical theater, attending in white tie and seated in the Royal Box. At the conclusion of the production that evening, Mrs. Kendal takes to the stage after the final curtain and announces to the entire audience that she and the musical company have dedicated the evening to a lover of the theater, Mr. John Merrick, motioning to him in the Royal Box. And with that, the entire house breaks into applause. As Merrick stands to acknowledge the recognition, the house audience then rises in a standing ovation for Merrick. Later that night, back at his room, Merrick thanks Dr. Treves for all he has done, and then prepares to retire. Merrick then puts the final touches on his exquisitely done cathedral scale model, signing his name to the model’s base. He then begins to prepare himself for bed, though this time, removing the pillows that have allowed him to sleep in an upright position so he will not die from the weight of his head. He lies down on his bed, knowing he will die, consoled by a nearby photograph of his mother, recalling her quoting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “Nothing Will Die.” Barber’s “Adagio” plays quietly in the background during the final bedroom scenes as Merrick prepares to lay down to die.
Saddest Ever?Thomas Larson, whose 2010 book, The Saddest Music Ever Written, is devoted to the Barber Adagio, calls the piece “the Pietá of music,” comparing it to the famous Michelangelo sculpture of Mary holding her crucified son, Jesus Christ, in her lap. “It captures the sorrow and the pity of tragic death…,” Larson says. He continues describing the music’s structure, movement and its emotive effect:
The Adagio is a sound shrine to music’s power to evoke emotion. Its elegiac descent is among the most moving expressions of grief in any art. The snail-like tempo, the constrained melodic line, its rise and fall, the periodic rests, the harmonic repetition, the harmonic color, the uphill slog, the climactic moment of its peaked eruption – all are crafted together into one magnificent effect: listeners, weeping in anguish, bear the glory and gravity of their grief. No sadder music has ever been written.
In an interview with New York radio station WQRX after his book came out, Larson explained: “…To me, Barber did something as a composer in the composition of sorrow that really tops the list… I myself don’t hear anything but the purifying of this emotion in this piece of music. There’s no other thing to call this piece but sad. It’s a lament and an elegy.”
In addition to Larson’s book, others have written extensively about Barber and his work, and a number of academic analysts have also dissected Barber’s “Adagio” from one perspective or another, several probing the music’s uses and reception in popular culture. Among books on Barber’s music and his life are: Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music by Barbara B. Heyman (1993); Benjamin Britten & Samuel Barber: Their Lives and Their Music by Daniel Felsenfeld (2005); Samuel Barber Remembered: A Centenary Tribute, by Peter Dickinson (2010); and, Samuel Barber: A Research and Information Guide, by Wayne Wentzel(2010). See also “Sources” below for additional works and references.
In 1999-2000, the popularity of “Adagio for Strings” received something of a boost from a rather unexpected quarter: electronic, new age, and electronic dance and trance music. William Orbit – an English musician, composer and record producer known in part for his Grammy winning production work on Madonna’s multi-platinum “Ray of Light” of 1998 – released Barber’s “Adagio” as a single and included it on his album, Pieces in a Modern Style.
The album, which hit No. 2 on the British pop charts and sold a half-million copies worldwide, consisted of classical works played on a synthesizer. Orbit’s cover of “Adagio” is the “straightest” of various electronic versions that have since come out. His version uses a bass pedal and takes the music an octave lower.
In one interview, Orbit recalled playing the track on a morning radio show in Los Angeles: “When we aired it for the first time, the switchboard just lit up.”Ferry Corsten, a Dutch electronic dance DJ and producer, had remixed Orbit’s version of “Adagio for Strings” and that version climbed the British singles chart to No. 4 at the close of 1999. Since then, “Adagio,” in one form or another, has become quite popular in the electronic dance world, and has been covered by other electronic dance DJs, producers, and remixers. Armin van Buuren, a Dutch trance music producer and DJ, has released a version.
DJ Tiësto, another Dutch electronic dance DJ and music producer, released a version in April 2005 as the fourth single from the album Just Be. In 2009, a New Age music group named “eRa,” headed by French composer Eric Lévi, released the album Classics that includes a version of “Adagio for Strings.” eRa’s music mixes Gregorian chants and sometimes world music with contemporary electronic arrangements. In other uses, Barber’s choral version, Agnus Dei, was used in the soundtrack to the 1999 PC video game Homeworld.
BBC ListenersStill, among all the genres in which Barber’s “Adagio” has been heard, it is the classical listening community that still holds the work in the most high regard. In 2004, the radio program, BBC Today, began a listener survey to find the saddest music in the world. After receiving more than four hundred nominations, they listed the top five on a website for voting. The audience preferred Barber’s Adagio more than two-to-one over the second place vote-getter and four-to-one over number three. Here’s how the voting turned out in percentage terms:
Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” (52.1%)
Henry Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament” (20.6%)
Gustav Mahler’s Adagietto, from 5th Symphony (12.3%)
Billie Holiday’s “Gloomy Sunday,” by Rezsô Seress (9.8 %)
Richard Strauss’s “Metamorphosen” (5.1 %)
In addition to the“saddest music” candidates above, others also mentioned elsewhere include: Chopin’s Funeral March, Maurice Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess, Rachmaninoff C#-minor Prelude, Albinoni’s “Adagio,” Arvo Pärt’s “A Far Cry,” Benjamin Britten’s “Cantus in Memoriam,” Vaughan Williams’ “Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” and the slow movement in F-minor of Mozart’s F-major piano sonata, K.280. Still, “Adagio for Strings” – at least by popular count and sentiment in this radio survey – appears to be the “winner” in the saddest music category.Samuel Barber often lamented the fact that his only popularly known work was “Adagio for Strings.” However, during his career he wrote an array of compositions that were either commissioned or debuted by major performers such as Vladamir Horowitz and Leontyne Price. In 1947 he composed “Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24,” a work for voice and orchestra with text from a 1938 short prose piece by famous writer, James Agee. Barber also won Pulitzer Prizes for both his opera “Vanessa” (1956-57), and what some regard as an incredible piano concerto — his “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” (1962). His “Antony and Cleopatra” was commissioned to open the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966.
Barber died of cancer at the age of 71 in 1981 in New York and is buried in West Chester, Pennsylvania next to his parents and sister. For additional stories at this website on music and popular culture see the Annals of Music category page. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 12 December 2013
Last Update: 12 December 2013
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Jack Doyle, “The Saddest Song: 1936-2103,”
PopHistoryDig.com, December 12, 2013.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
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“This Day in History – November 5, 1938: Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings Receives its World Premiere on NBC Radio,” History.com, 2012.
Olin Downes, “Toscanini Plays Two New Works; Two by Barber, American Composer, ‘Adagio for Strings’ and ‘Essay for Orchestra’ Third by Paul Graener Dvorak’s ‘New World’ Symphony, and Debussy’s ‘Iberia’…,” New York Times, November 6, 1938, p. 48.
Nathan Broder, “The Music of Samuel Barber,” The Musical Quarterly (Oxford University Press), Vol. 34, No. 3, July 1948, pp. 325-335.
Nathan Broder, Samuel Barber, New York: G. Schirmer, Publisher, 1954, 111pp.
Barbara B. Heyman, Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music, Oxford University Press, 1st Edition, 1992, 608 pp.
Steve Schwartz, “Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings, Op. 11,” Classical.net, 1995.
“Vote for the World’s Saddest Music,” BBC Radio 4, last update, May 2004.
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Daniel Felsenfeld, Benjamin Britten & Samuel Barber: Their Lives and Their Music, Amadeus Press, 2005, 180 pp.
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Luke Howard, “The Popular Reception of Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings,” American Music, Spring 2007. pp. 50-80.
Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Macmillan, October 2007, 624 pp.
Julie McQuinn, “Listening Again to Barber’s Adagio for Strings as Film Music,” American Music, Volume 27, Number 4, Winter 2009, pp. 461-499.
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