Daily Dose of Morbidity

Category : Blog Archive Feb 8th, 2010

I’m currently working on some program notes for Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. (Hi, by the way. I haven’t forgotten I have a blog; I just seem to have forgotten how to find time to write in it.)

I think I’m in the majority when I say that I associate this work with deaths, funerals, and memorial services, although this seems to have little to do with what Barber intended when he wrote it. Barber was only twenty-six when he composed the Adagio, and it was originally the second movement of his String Quartet in B Minor. He made a five-part arrangement in 1938, which was presented to Toscannini and soon thereafter performed by the famed conductor during one of his radio broadcasts with the NBC Symphony. This, incidentally, was no small thing; at the time, Toscanini was notorious for his avoidance of programming both modern works and the works of American composers.

At any rate, I wanted to write a paragraph in my notes about how the Adagio has come to be known as “our national funeral music.” It was played during media coverage of the deaths of FDR, JFK, and Albert Einstein. (See Barbara Heyman’s biography, Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music). My research into the topic led me to this list of “Top Funeral Songs” from planningafuneral.com.

(I’m also taking a Mahler seminar this semester, and we all know how fond he was of a good funeral march.)

My disclaimer will be that this is coming from the girl who had Guy Lombardo’s “Enjoy Yourself” played at her father’s service (I, like Mahler, have a strong sense of irony)–but do portions of this list seem odd to anyone else? Why is it that you have to be a head of state to have classical music played at your funeral? Are Ozzy Osborne and Metallica really that commonly played at memorial services? Does a song simply have to use a word like “memory,” “heart,” “angel,””heaven,” etc. to qualify as appropriate for a funeral, regardless of what the song is actually about? And I can totally see Phil Collins‘s next album: Death: The Ultimate Breakup.