Music for an American disasterPosted on: 16 May 2020, by : Paul
The USA is in deep trouble, with, by 16 May, at least 90,000 deaths from COVID-19: the worst casualty-rate so far of any country in the world and already, in merely eight weeks, 50% greater than the number of US military personnel killed or missing in action over the eight years of the Vietnam War. What makes this a shocking and peculiarly American disaster, in contrast to the health emergency as it is affecting most other countries, is that it is getting ever worse by the day in the most toxic political environment of any democracy in modern times. Having failed to ameliorate the crisis in its earlier phases, the incompetent administration of a delusional president now prefers to wash its hands of the problems, blame others and encourage dangerous conspiracy theories and reckless actions by various state governors and local mayors that further jeopardize public health and will increase the death toll. Medical expertise, once-respected federal agencies like the Center for Disease Control, the rule of law and the truth itself are daily undermined. This past week all those alarming trends gathered pace. America’s suffering will continue to deepen in the months ahead — short of a miracle.
Many will indeed be praying for a miracle, and in these circumstances many will recall the most famous music by the American composer Samuel Barber. This setting of the Agnus Dei (part of the Mass) is Barber’s own arrangement of an earlier composition from 1936: it was made in 1967 — when the conflict in Vietnam was escalating into a fullscale war.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, grant us peace.
A live performance by the Rotterdam Symphony Chorus, conducted by Wiecher Mandemaker, on 6 November 2015 in St John’s Cathedral, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands.
Barber’s earliest arrangement of this music, the Adagio for Strings (1936), was long ago adopted as America’s mournful elegy: it was broadcast over the radio following the deaths of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1945) and John F. Kennedy (1963), frequently played following the 9/11 attacks (2001), and throughout the 2010s performed in memory of the victims of mass shootings and terrorist bombs. By the 1990s the Adagio for Strings had become deeply etched in the American consciousness as a token for national disaster (rather than only associated with the tragic death of individuals) following its use in 1986 for Platoon, the Oliver Stone movie about the Vietnam War.
The original version: the second movement of Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11 (1936). The US-based Dover Quartet in a video from 2015.
Adagio for Strings, Barber’s arrangement (1936) from his string-quartet movement. Performance in 2016 by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
Barber’s composition thereby came to represent genuine truths in an age when the truth is often a victim, suppressed or manipulated for cynical or malevolent purposes. In his book Hymns for the Fallen: Combat Movie Music and Sound After Vietnam (2017), Todd Decker writes: ‘Platoon was, for me and many of my generation [he was 18 when the film was released], an initial means of access to the “truth” of the Vietnam War. That truth came accompanied by Barber’s Adagio. Platoon‘s original audiences stayed and listened. Many cried. The precise emotional content of those tears, like the expressive content of Barber’s piece, remains inaccessible beyond noting the experience of the film as a kind of mourning at once national and personal.’