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The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings Hardcover – September 15, 2010

3.4 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“This is a wonderful examination of the effects of an artistic artifact on culture and, conversely, the various uses (undreamt of by the composer) to which the music has been put by others. It is also a personal testament to the power of a cultural artifact on an individual. Highly recommended.” (Library Journal)

“If Aaron Copland was the Updike of American music, then Samuel Barber was its Cheever. Larson provides a rich biographical context for Barber’s fervid creativity.” (The New Yorker)

“Written with great compassion and earnestness. An intimate history of this great work of music. it is the soundtrack of the soul.” (Phyllis Nordstrom - Classical Voice of New England)

“Rarely, if ever, have nine minutes of music been subjected to such intense cultural, historical, and emotional analysis.” (Eugene Drucker, violinist, The Emerson String Quartet)

“An exploration of a fascinating composer, a case study in the cultural appropriation of works of art, and a very personal meditation on the power of music.” (Kevin Bazzana, author of Lost Genius)

About the Author

Journalist, critic, and memoirist, Thomas Larson is the author of three books: The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. As a staff writer for the San Diego Reader, he has written more than 50 feature-length cover stories. He teaches in the MFA Program at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio, and is the Book Review editor for River Teeth. He holds workshops and lectures on memoir writing, American music, and heart disease throughout the United States. His website is thomaslarson.com.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 262 pages
  • Publisher: Pegasus; First Edition edition (September 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 160598115X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1605981154
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,142,718 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Critic, journalist, and memoirist, Thomas Larson is the author of three books: "The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease," Hudson Whitman Press; "The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's 'Adagio for Strings,'" Pegasus Books; and "The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative," Ohio University Press / Swallow Press, which is in its fourth printing.

He is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader and teaches in the MFA program in creative nonfiction at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. He holds workshops on memoir writing and delivers multimedia talks on the craft of writing and his heart disease. He's also the Book Review editor at River Teeth.

His Kindle books include "What Exactly Happened: Four Essays on the Craft of Memoir," "We Are Their Heaven: A Family Memoir," "On the Poetry of James Wright," and "Awash in Celebrity Authors."

He edits manuscripts and coaches writing students. His website is thomaslarson.com. When not on the road or spending time in Santa Fe, Larson lives with his partner Suzanna Neal in San Diego.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
"The Saddest Music Ever Written, The Story of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings" is part biography and part tribute/analysis of the quintessential American dirge. Familiar to multiple generations, Barber's Adagio for Strings has been performed following the deaths of President Roosevelt, Kennedy, and former movie star Grace Kelly. It was also part of the theme music for the movie "Platoon," grieving the reality of the war in Vietnam. More recently, it was performed in Great Britain to acknowledge the tragedy of the twin towers' destruction of 9-11-2001. The Adagio for Strings, written in 1936, when the composer was in his twenties, is described as "The Pieta of music. It captures the sorrow and pity tragic death: listening to it, we are Mother Mary come alive - holding the lifeless Christ on our laps, one arm bracing the slumped head, the other offering him to the ages. 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....No sadder music have ever been written (p.7)." In "The Saddest Music Ever Written...," Larson asks, "What is its sorrow about (p. 14)?" He concludes there are perhaps three possible answers: "It is about Barber's melancholia and depression; it is about the aloneness we feel when a loved one is lost or dies,...and it is about our alienation from ourselves as Americans: (p. 14)' or about the death of part or parts of the American dream. Much in Larson's analysis delves deeply into the composer's personal life history and also into his own family and life history. It is as though the experience of the "Adagio" is a common thread of deep, universal, yet intensely personal significance. Surely this book is testament to the importance of music in expression of emotions, specifically grief.Read more ›
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By Firebrand on November 20, 2012
Format: Paperback
For fans of the Adagio, this book lovingly (and almost obsessively) chronicles what the author (who must be the biggest fan of the work that there is) believes is the widespread cultural impact of the work, and the work's effect on him personally.

But there are problems. Larson grossly overstates his case. The Barber Adagio is indeed a sad work, but the "saddest ever written" is purely subjective. The universe of music offers an exhaustive list of works that are sad as well as more significant, just as popular, and also routinely played at funerals, in films, etc. "SaddEST" is subjective, yet Larson argues for his champion very desperately.

But worse, as others point out, Larson goes out of his way to shoehorn and project tragedy, and the Adagio itself, into every aspect of Barber's life and history, which is highly questionable, and highly subjective.

More than anything else, this book is about Larson, and Larson's wild guesses about Barber and the "meaning" of the work.

The author's fierce advocacy and very personal devotion to the work makes for an interesting and controversial read, but it is a dumbed down simplification that exaggerates and even invents extramusical projections and endless "what ifs" into a piece of music, robbing the music itself of its mystery, and the power to stand on its own.

Readers must be warned that this is one person's editorial. Not fact.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
A lot can be said about Barber's Adagio and Larson has said a lot, a lot, and even more. Perhaps some music professionals could say more more, but I was daunted sometimes by the language already in place, its complex and fine grammar of musical description or what sounds like it to my very naive ear. Yet there is no denying the sweep of the book and the author's wide-ranging passion for and yes, obsession with, Barber and his amazing sound. This may not be a book to be read in one sitting; it reads like an opera--many characters, many settings, many themes but one tone--of lament; and it can be annoying when it depends on imaginative speculation, but it makes its own kinda of tribute that is eventful. In short, this book feels like a monument to the ineffable glory of America's dirge.

(And as an interesting aside, it does a good job of reminding us, mired in ipods, of the original and compelling power of radio, of people gathering around the sound of the human voice and music rather than browsing the visual, each to their own separate universe).
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Format: Hardcover
as an admirer of barber's work, i so looked forward to this book. but it's a grievous disappointment.
the author, seemingly obsessed with the adagio, endlessly repeats the same banal and obvious
pop-culture observations about it; literally, the same cliches are hashed over and over about it, on and on,
chapter after chapter, as if the needle was stuck on an old lp record.

more disturbingly, he presents a highly editorialized view of barber's life and music through the prism/diagnosis
of depression - nearly every work of barber's is characterized as 'mournful'; every tender melodic passage
as 'rueful and sad'. hello!?! anyone who listens to barber's music will recognize its zest and love for life; its beautiful,
heartfelt, antic spirit. yes, some of his work is impassioned, and dark; but much of it is brimming
with joy and happiness. his lyricism is not 'mournful' as frequently described here, but
glowing, tender, even downright sensual.

and i don't believe barber's life was one solely clouded by darkness and despair. he had his ups, his downs,
his joys, his heartaches, like so many other great artists. but to paint him singularly as a tragic, depressed figure,
ever haunted by the monumental success of the adagio, is ridiculous and historically inaccurate.
well, i guess it makes sense, coming from a book entitled 'the saddest music ever written'.
funny, i have never found the adagio sad - stately, profound, uplifting, yes,
but the 'saddest music ever written'? give me a break!
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