Adagio for Strings – Samuel Barber

a movement of the String Quartet No. 1, Opus 11 (1936)

samuel barberIt’s Lent. I’m not singing in church because COVID. And it makes me quite sad.

Now Lenten music tends to be melancholy, but it’s a good kind of sad, a reflective type of sad. For instance, give me a good requiem any time, but especially between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

The Adagio for Strings began as a movement of the String Quartet No. 1, Opus 11 (1936) by Samuel Barber (1910-1981). It was so effective that it was spun off on its own. Is there anything sadder than Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings? I don’t think so, But, with some reimagining, I could be wrong.

It was broadcast over the radio at the announcement of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, and on television at the announcement of John F. Kennedy’s. Albert Einstein and Princess Grace of Monaco’s funerals featured the theme. It was performed at Last Night of the Proms in 2001 at the Royal Albert Hall to commemorate the victims of the September 11 attacks, and in Trafalgar Square following the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo.


And it is such an adaptable piece, which has been arranged for solo organ, clarinet choir, woodwind band, and, as Agnus Dei, for chorus with optional organ or piano accompaniment, among others. It’s been used in everything from the movie Platoon to The Simpsons television show.

So, if it can also be modified to be dance music, I reckon that’s the strength of the composition. In most any iteration, as someone wrote, “There is a depth in such music that reaches deep down in human soul.”

Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Eos Sextet – Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ. Not a string to be found.

Choral version of Agnus Dei sung to the theme. Performed by The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, UK.

Dover Quartet. Usually, it’s the final cadence of a piece that gets to me. But for the Adagio, it’s about 3/4 of the way through. In this iteration, between 5:30 and 6:00.

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