The Kennedy Center

Agnus Dei

About the Work

Samuel Barber Composer: Samuel Barber
© Thomas May

A former prodigy student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (where Bernstein would also study more than a decade later), Samuel Barber already began to attract international notice while still in his twenties. His Symphony in One Movement, for example, became the first piece by an American to be played at the ultra-prestigious Salzburg Festival in 1937. A few years before that, Barber—living at the time in Italy—began cultivating the acquaintance of Arturo Toscanini, winning his admiration with the successful premiere of the new symphony. Though the famous conductor was hardly known as a staunch advocate of new music (let alone of American composers), he asked Barber for some fresh compositions for his radio orchestra, the NBC Symphony, a new endeavor founded for Toscanini after he went into exile from fascist Italy. Toscanini's commission resulted in one of the best-loved pieces not just by an American composer but of the 20th century overall.

Along with the First Essay for Orchestra, Toscanini was presented with Barber's arrangement for string orchestra of the slow movement of his only String Quartet, Op. 1, which was written in 1936. In its original context, the Adagio occurs as the middle of three movements, yet it is perfectly suited to being performed as a stand-alone piece. Indeed, Barber was never satisfied with his conclusion to the quartet, whose emotional weight was centered in the middle; he eventually opted for a brief coda-like movement in lieu of his original finale. Toscanini premiered Barber's Adagio in a widely acclaimed broadcast in November 1938, later choosing the piece for his first recording of American music.

Itself an arrangement of a pre-existing work, the Adagio for Strings in turn prompted numerous additional arrangements by others, including ones for brass band, clarinet choir, and organ. (Over the last couple of decades it has been frequently sampled and remixed in pop music as well, including in a version by one of Madonna's producers). In 1967 Barber himself made the present arrangement for a cappella eight-part chorus. The new version naturally marked the first time words became attached to this music: Barber took his text from the Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God"), the Latin prayer with which musical settings of the Mass Ordinary usually conclude. Barber intended his choral version of the Adagio, though, to be heard as an independent piece rather than as part of a complete Mass setting.

Among the many reactions the Adagio has provoked, Aaron Copland aptly captured the qualities of immediacy and economy that make this music so enduring: "It comes straight from the heart, to use old-fashioned terms. The sense of continuity, the steadiness of the flow, that satisfaction of the arch that it creates from beginning to end. They're all very gratifying, satisfying, and it makes you believe in the sincerity which [Barber] obviously puts into it."