Theory Wonk Post

October is the cruelest month. Or rather, late October/early November: my first-year students know diatonic chords and a few non-chord tones, but it’s awfully difficult to find pieces of music (even hymns!) devoid of accidentals for people still stymied by secondary dominants. One piece that I’ve found wonderful for teaching around Halloween is Barber’s Adagio for Strings – I’m not a fan of Barber or the piece, but they all know it by heart, and the film industry has done very well by it. And a lot of it stays in B-flat minor and teaches the 4-3 suspension ad nauseum:

Also, that last chord in the fourth measure is good for driving home the point that inversions matter. Barber uses it all over the place, and as a major 7th chord with the third in the bass and seventh in the melody, the root gets a little buried, for a bittersweet effect that feels both D-flat major and F minor. No wonder it’s laid over so many muted scenes of handsome young men dying in battle. The chord in that position comes back over and over, including at the climax (third, fifth, and seventh chords here):
Plus, the climactic chord progression here, though it strays outside the key, pretty much runs through half the circle of fifths in the flat direction: Gb, Cb7, Fb = E, A7, D, B (instead of the expected G), C, F – and you’re back at the dominant. So I get to demonstrate how comforting it is to keep moving toward the flat side of the key. 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. But the kids learn, I think, that knowing how to use common harmonies effectively can become a well-remunerated skill in the film industry. Perhaps other theory profs might benefit from the suggestion.


  1. Lawrence Major says

    I read this site for useful insight and information about today’s music. Your comments on Barber’s Adagio sadly seem to confirm simplicity in music is still frowned upon in certain circles. It is 2008 and these ideas have been old-fashioned for a while now. Even mathematics abides by the KISS principle. Putting down Barber’s Adagio as a movie “trick” is also disengenuous; most movie scores are derivatives of original works written by others anyway.
    Condescension toward Barber for a beautiful work, loved by millions, and can make grown men cry? Your doctorate and professorship are showing sir. Aside from this slip, please continue the good work.
    KG replies: Oh, don’t get your knickers in a knot, it’s an OK piece. But Mahler achieves a greater depth of the same brand of sentimental feeling in the slow movement of his Fifth Symphony with far more inventiveness. It would be an enormous fallacy to assume, because I have a very specific complaint about one specific well-loved piece, that I must therefore be stereotyped as one of those intellectuals who looks down his nose at everything popular or un-intellectual. If you’ve been reading this blog, you should know that I’ve been championing simplicity in music since long before I earned a doctorate – and I’ve been condescending to Barber for the same length of time. As Noel Coward said, “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”

  2. richard says

    The Adagio might also be a good teaching tool to use with your comp students, ie the musical sins of youth. Also, as a blind hog can find an acorn now and then, I do think Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a pretty good work,
    KG replies: That’s always been my favorite Barber piece too, by far.