Samuel Barber

Born - Mar 9, 1910   |   Died - Jan 23, 1981   |   Genres - Drama, Music, War, Dance

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Barber is often called a neo-Romantic American composer, but he created a distinctive style noted for its rich melodiousness, new approach to tonal harmony, and colorful timbres. Without doubt, his most famous work is the Adagio for Strings (1936) from his String Quartet, Op. 11. This piece has a slowly unfolding melody that is simultaneously sad, comforting, compassionate, and noble. It was played at the funeral of Princess Diana in England. In Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986), Barber's Adagio for Strings (uncredited) slowly fades in at the very beginning as the fresh recruits of Bravo Company, 25th Infantry leave an airplane carrier and walk onto a hot and dusty military airfield in Vietnam in September 1967. They pass wounded men on stretchers and seasoned troops. The emotions of the viewers are immediately gripped by the cognitive dissonance of the music's monumental sadness mixed with the harsh reality of the imagery. The music returns about midway into the film as local village farmers are shot, raped, and battered by American soldiers who burn all the houses. The music underscores an offscreen narrative, in the form of a letter by Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) to his grandmother, in which he describes the growing animosity within the platoon. The music expresses desperate tension rather than sadness, as Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) is shown abandoned on the ground, pursued by Viet Cong soldiers, after previously being shot in the jungle by Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) because he told the truth about the murderous raid. Elias holds up his hands in a pleading gesture as the rescue helicopters fly away. After more overwhelming battle action, Sergeant Barnes is shot by one of his men. The music accompanies the final scenes of bodies being dumped into mass graves, and a final monologue delivered by Taylor from a helicopter as he observes first the carnage, then the beautiful hills. Toward the conclusion of David Lynch's insightful and moving The Elephant Man (1980), Barber's Adagio for Strings is heard as the deformed and soulful John Merrick (wonderfully interpreted byJohn Hurt) decides to end his life after being accepted by certain kind people from London society, protected by the London hospital, and freed from the brutishness of his former life. He simply places his body in a fully rested position rather than in the sitting position in which he must normally sleep in order not to cut off his air flow. A cameo of his mother appears floating in a starry sky and her voice is heard saying, "Never, never, nothing will die, the stream flows, the wind blows...." In an episode of the popular Seinfeld television comedy show, Barber's Adagio for Strings bypasses somber contextualization and instead enhances an extended joke: The father of Seinfeld's friend George has a phobia against cooking because he once cooked bad meat for troops in Korea thinking that he could just add a lot of spices and make the food palatable and somehow healthy again. But instead the soldiers are shown in a slow-motion, black-and-white flashback wretching and collapsing in the mess tent in a parody of serious war movie action-in-the-trenches as Barber's score plays. The Adagio for Strings is also heard in the moving Lorenzo's Oil (1992) about a boy's miraculous cure, and El Norte (1983) about Mayans who escape a repressive regime to start a new life in Los Angeles. Other fine works by Barber (e.g., the String Quartet, Op. 27, Essay for Orchestra, the cello and violin concertos, the Capricorn Concerto) offer rich possibilities as film music.