Adagio for Strings (x5)

When and why does an idea become a cliché? It is by overuse or by misguided use?


In 1936, American composer Samuel Barber wrote what was to become his most famous work. Adagio for Strings began as the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11 and has since become popular with classical music aficionados and trance deejays alike. It also features on many film and television soundtracks. Too many, one could argue.


This montage mashes up five of those movies. It’s the music John Merrick dies to in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980). In the immigration drama El Norte (1983) too, it is used as the background music for a death scene. Oliver Stone took things to the next level in his Oscar winning Platoon (1986). He used Barber’s music as a leitmotif throughout the movie: it can be heard in no less than eight scenes. The drama Lorenzo’s Oil (1992) was based on a true story, but still relied on Barber’s strings to add some sentiment (1). When the titular character in Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001) imagines watching her own obituary on television, that segment too is set to Adagio for Strings.


Unsurprisingly, this emotional piece of music lends itself well to sentimental scenes. It is often used in similar settings and as background music to comparable events. Death and dying (preferably bedside, but on the battlefield as well). Children clutching adults. Crying – lots of it. But when does a usage become clichéd?

The theories of French art historian Henri Focillon come to mind. Focillon wrote about what he called the lifecycle of art forms (2). He saw every art form going through four distinct phases: Experimental, Classical, Refined and Baroque –  in that order. An art style first goes through an experimental stage where it is still trying to define its founding principles, before finding those in the stable second stage that is the Classical era. In the third phase, the art form further develops, often into a more elegant (but also less fertile) form. Finally, in the Baroque phase, the style becomes self-referential, more extreme and even its own parody.


This idea can be applied to film (3), and may also help to explain the changing fortunes of the use of a piece of music such as Adagio for Strings in the movies. It’s hard to pinpoint an experimental stage for the use of this classical piece in film, but one might argue that the way it is used in both The Elephant Man and El Norte is its classical use: as a musical backdrop for emotional scenes that have to convey a sense of loss or a farewell.


Oliver Stone then (arguably) takes things into the refined phase. He too uses Barber’s piece as a soundtrack to death, but also broadens its applications. He uses it to score scenes of cruelty against civilians, of soldiers dreading the future, of recruits dealing with the loss of youth and innocence.

But Stone overuses it, which may well have shortened its shelf life. For by the time Jeunet has his Amélie listen to it, its use has become self-referential. Jeunet’s tongue-in-cheek scene mocks the way Barber’s composition has become associated with images of death. Another movie that uses the music in this ironical way is S1m0ne (2002). There it is the soundtrack to a fictional film-in-the-film: it is used to illustrate the emotional artifice of that movie. Adagio for Strings, these two examples seem to suggest, has entered its Baroque phase and is now only fit for parody.


(Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary Sicko appears to buck this trend. Moore borrows Barber’s composition to add emotional impact to an otherwise straightforward scene of a legal testimony. He uses it without a hint of irony. Then again, Michael Moore never was one to shy away from emphatic emotional techniques. Even if they are considered, well, Baroque).

(1) To be precise, Lorenzo’s Oil uses both the original string arrangement and the choral setting (Agnus Dei) of Barber’s piece.
(2) Focillon, Henri. Vie des formes. Presses Universitaires de France, 1934.
(3) In his writings on movie genres, film historian Thomas Schatz also recognizes a quartet of phases that all genres go through. He calls the fourth one the “Opacity” phase, but the three other terms he borrows from Focillon.
This video essay includes clips from:


The Elephant Man [feature film] Dir. David Lynch. Brooksfilms, USA, 1980. 124 mins.
El Norte [feature film] Dir. Gregory Nava. American Playhouse et al., UK, USA, 1983. 124 mins.
Platoon [feature film] Dir. Oliver Stone. Helmdale Films et al., USA, 1986. 120 mins.
Lorenzo’s Oil [feature film] Dir. George Miller. Kennedy Miller Productions et al., USA, 1992. 129 mins.
Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain [feature film] Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Claudie Ossard Productions et al., France, 2001. 122 mins.


Additional illustrations are taken from:


Sicko [documentary film] Dir. Michael Moore. Dog Eat Dog Films et al., USA, 2007. 123 mins.
S1m0ne [feature film] Dir. Andrew Niccol. Niccol Films et al., USA, 2002. 117 mins.


The recording used is:


‘Adagio for Strings’, Samuel Barber – Adagio (100th Anniversary) [music track, online download] Perf. Berliner Philharmoniker / Sir Simon Rattle. Warner Classics, USA, 2010. 8 mins 57 secs.