The Other Side

NO PIECE OF MUSIC means more to me than the one I’m posting below. Of course, I’m not alone in that—this orchestral work was voted in a recent poll to be the single most powerful piece of music ever written.

I don’t want on this blog to refer too often to my struggle a few years ago with cancer. But as anyone who has done so can tell you, battling this dragon is a profound and life-altering experience. One night, I pretty much hit bottom. I so wanted out—just wanted to take a little more morphine than my prescribed allotment—and gradually drift into a final merciful sleep.

But as I lay there in only partially masked pain—without hair, alone, and almost too weak to think from a chemo dose my oncologist said was the largest he’d ever given—I pulled on my headphones and placed in the player Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Opus 11—played by the New York Philharmonic, with Leonard Bernstein conducting. I closed my eyes and let the mournful, haunting music flow over me.

I played it several times, and somehow, the feelings of oppressive sadness and hopelessness began to dissipate. As the Adagio climbed ever so slowly and inexorably to a soaring summit, followed by a quiet denouement, I truly felt as if I were being transported to a hilltop bathed in light, where I could look over if only briefly and see “the other side”—the place I want to spend eternity. It was for me a singularly sublime moment. And in the final quiet moments of the Adagio, it’s as if I heard—as clearly as ever I have—God assuring me that all would be well.

When Arturo Toscanini first performed 26-year-old composer Samuel Barber’s new Adagio in 1938, the audience was stunned. Many were even moved to tears—as I had been that lonely and dark night of my soul—yet after long moments of silence, a standing ovation followed. The composition shook the music world.

In the years to come, the poignant Adagio would prove its power to reach people in all walks of life. In 1945, it was played at the funeral of Franklin D. Roosevelt—and in 1963 on the death of John F. Kennedy—as well as on the passings of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco and Princess Diana. It was famously used in the Vietnam cinematic epic Platoon, as well as in several other movies (including The Elephant Man, The Scarlet Letter, Lorenzo’s Oil, and Amélie).

On September 15, 2001, the Adagio was performed as a memorial to the victims of 9/11 four days earlier, by the BBC Orchestra, magnificently conducted by Leonard Slatkin, in London’s Royal Albert Hall. This nearly 11-minute video is the version posted below. The video (and you may need to increase your volume setting, especially at first) is interspersed throughout with images of mourners at the British memorial. You’ll find Barber’s “summit” at around the 3-minute, 50-second mark (this video counter counts down).

As the Twin Towers fell, that same morning I sat—on the other end of the nation—at the graveside service for my father. How I miss him! During my illness, he had changed my dressings, stayed whole nights in my hospital room, and cared for me—his only and namesake son—in my nearly helpless state as he had decades earlier in my childhood. I so look forward now, with yearnings too deep for words, to seeing him and my other Father on the other side—previewed for me in this powerfully moving Adagio.


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