Sunday, November 4, 2007

Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings and Agnus Dei

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) was an American composer who wrote everything from opera and orchestral music to choral arrangements and music for the piano. In 1936 Barber composed the piece which he is so famously known for, his Adagio for Strings. Orchestrated from his String Quartet No.1, this absolutely beautiful composition manages to express not just mere anguish, but a palpable sense of suffering at the passage of time. Barber masterfully included a time element in his piece, allowing the listener to reflect on his or her present suffering or contemplate the hardships of previous times.

Then in 1967 Barber re-arranged his Adagio into a choral piece by adding the Agnus Dei text. It truly is a beautiful marriage. With the Agnus Dei text, you can envision a Crucified Christ hanging from the cross, with life receding from His body in the final hours. This Agnus Dei is somewhat lengthy if you are only used to listening to the three to four minute secular/ non- classical music numbers, or if you have ADD.

One last thing: The Adagio for Strings has been used in the cinema before - quite poorly - by directors who wanted to melodramatically enhance the emotionality of some poignant scene. Little did they know the overkill of this repugnant combination. This piece - in my humble opinion - is best when the visual component is the image evoked by the music in the mind of the listener.

Adagio for Strings

Agnus Dei

Agnus Dei text

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.

The Agnus Dei that is being performed in the above video is somewhat feeble and cacophonous. For a truly beautiful rendition of this number see the performance by The Choir of New College, Oxford in the CD below. You'll find not just a moving performance of this Agnus Dei but many different sacred works as well!


Adrienne said...

Well, tom, I do have ADD but, you see, we ADD'ers also have the ability to hyper-focus, so 10 minutes of music is a drop in the bucket of what we are capable of doing.

The first piece was wonderful and just what I needed after spending "quality time" with the kidlets. Thanks!!

Tom in Vegas said...

I, too, have ADD; an advanced form of a rare strain. I have noticed, however, that most people in our society claim to suffer from this condition. I wonder how much of it is self-induced?

Anyway, these pieces make me think and meditate, but they don't relax me. They have a tendency of making my mind mull over all the subjects I struggle to understand theologically.


Faithful Catholic said...

Can we talk about cacophonous? I really, really react negatively to organ music. It drives me nuts! I am about as ADHD as they come! Whenever I hear the organ, I cannot help but think "whose idea was this?" to create such an instrument. Is it just me or does it grate on every nerve in your body? I love music, I love classical music. I hate the organ! It's really bad when I go to mass when the organ is being played. I cannot focus one bit on anything but the fact that it's driving me crazy. Give me the piano anyday. But, don't give me electric guitars, congas or any of that nonsense at mass.

Well, as you can tell, I saw one particular word, associated with one particular feeling and now I'm off and running on all things "cacophanous."

Thanks for the videos, Tom. I'll agree with you about the Agnus Dei. I've heard better. I like Samuel Barber. I can listen for that long but, not on my laptop because the speakers don't do it justice.