Another photograph of Samuel Barber, Blackwing 602 in-hand.

Here is a link to a program from the WPR show To the Best of Our Knowledge, which addresses why it is we seem to love sad music. Featured in the segment is Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

While I can understand and appreciate the author’s sentiment, that Barber’s Adagio is the “saddest music ever written”, I think attempting to affix such a designation only serves to harm: music’s capacity to convey emotion is only limited when such an artificial boundary is imposed upon it. My feeling has always been that music and the rest of the arts in general are resistant to qualifiers such as “best” or “worst” etc. If such a thing as “best” (or any superlative) exists in music aesthetics, that means an immediate and irrevocable limit is in place from the start: as a performer then I’m either consigned to know there is a “best” performance that I haven’t reached, or if I do, it suggests there is nothing more that can be learned from that piece.

Music isn’t compatible with finding limits, superlatives, or absolutes with regard to aesthetics and even if it were, there’s little to be gained in finding them. And to argue such designations is rarely about the music—it’s usually more about the person doing the arguing.

 To suggest that there is some ostensible end to be reached anywhere in music is, I think, to incalculably miss the point.