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Samuel Barber  

Adagio for Strings

Adagio 1936. Time: 6'30.

This work was originally the second movement of the String Quartet opus 11 from 1936. Two years later Barber wrote a version for string orchestra that became probably his best known work.

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Samuel Barber, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1944.

Adagio for Strings is a work for string orchestra, arranged by the American composer Samuel Barber from the second movement of his String Quartet.



Barber's Adagio for Strings began as the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11, composed in 1936 while Barber was spending a summer in Europe with his partner Gian Carlo Menotti, an Italian composer who was a fellow student at The Curtis Institute of Music.[1] In the quartet the Adagio follows a violently contrasting first movement (Molto allegro e appassionato) and is succeeded by music which opens with a brief reprise of the music from the first movement (marked Molto allegro (come prima) – Presto).

In January 1938 Barber sent an orchestrated version of the Adagio to Arturo Toscanini. The conductor returned the score without comment, which annoyed Barber, who evaded an invitation from the conductor. Toscanini then sent word through Menotti that he was planning to perform the piece and had returned it simply because he had already memorized it.[2] It was reported that Toscanini did not look at the music again until the day before the premiere.[3] The work was given its first performance in a radio broadcast by Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony Orchestra on November 5, 1938 in New York.

The composer also transcribed the piece in 1967 for eight-part choir, as a setting of the Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God").


The piece uses an arch form, employing and then inverting, expanding, and varying a stepwise ascending melody. It is in the key of B-flat minor and is in 4/2 time, although the meter varies throughout.

The long, flowing melodic line moves freely between the voices in the string choir; for example, the first section of the Adagio begins with the principal melodic cell played by first violins, but ends with its restatement by violas, transposed down a fifth. Violas continue with a variation on the melodic cell in the second section; the basses are silent for this and the next section. The expansive middle section begins with cellos playing the principal melodic cell in mezzo-soprano range; as the section builds, the string choir moves up the scale to their highest registers, culminating in a fortissimo-forte climax followed by sudden silence. A brief series of mournful chords serve as a harmonic transition to return to the tonic, reintroducing the bass section. The last section is a restatement of the original theme, with an inversion of the second piece of the melodic cell, played by first violins and violas in unison; the piece ends with first violins slowly restating the first five notes of the melody in alto register, holding the last note over a brief silence and a fading accompaniment.

Popularity and influence

The recording of the 1938 world premiere, with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra, was selected in 2005 for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry at the United States Library of Congress.[4]

The Adagio was broadcast over the radio at the announcement of Franklin D. Roosevelt's death.[5] It was played at the funeral of Albert Einstein[5] and at the funeral of Princess Grace of Monaco.[5] An LP of the work was inadvertently played briefly at 78 RPM for a few seconds on CBS Radio during the radio report of John F. Kennedy's assassination; engineers had reportedly been trying to play The Star Spangled Banner. It was performed in 2001 at Last Night of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall to commemorate the victims of the September 11 attacks, replacing the traditional upbeat patriotic songs.[6] It was also played during the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.[7] On April 13, 2010 Adagio for Strings was performed at the special joint session of the Polish Parliament and Senate three days after the tragic plane crash that killed Polish president Lech Kaczyński among others.

In 2004, listeners of the BBC's Today program voted Adagio the "saddest classical" work ever, ahead of "Dido's Lament" from Dido and Æneas by Henry Purcell, the "Adagietto" from Gustav Mahler's 5th symphony, Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss and Gloomy Sunday as sung by Billie Holiday.[8]

Adagio for Strings may be heard on many film, TV, and video game soundtracks,[9] including Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning film Platoon, David Lynch's 1980 Oscar-nominated film The Elephant Man, Michael Moore's documentary Sicko, Lorenzo's Oil, A Very Natural Thing, Reconstruction, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Oscar-nominated 2001 film Amélie. It has been heard in episodes of The Simpsons, South Park, Seinfeld, Big Brother 2010 (UK), That Mitchell and Webb Look, The Boondocks, ER, Big Love[10], and How I Met Your Mother. A choral version performed by Santa Barbara's Quire of Voyces is the second track on the soundtrack to the popular 1999 PC video game Homeworld. Adagio for Strings was also used as backing music for a feature on Sky One's Saturday morning show Soccer AM, where they claimed to show "the extras from the cast of the Platoon (film)", playing the sound of gunfire and explosions over the music while showing footage of players diving in over-dramatic fashion from football matches played the week before.[11]

A recorded performance by the London Symphony Orchestra was, for a time, the highest selling classical piece on iTunes.[12]

The work is extremely popular in the electronic dance music genre, notably in trance. Artists who have covered it include Armin van Buuren, William Orbit, Ferry Corsten and Tiësto, with Corsten's arrangement reaching #4 in the UK singles chart. It has appeared on many albums and compilations, for its emotiveness. These include an original version as the first track on Gatecrasher's Disco-Tech (CD 2), Tiësto's version on his album Parade of the Athletes, William Orbit's version as the last track on Gatecrasher's National Anthems (CD 1) and many more. eRa included this song in their new album Classics.


  1. ^ Keller, Johanna (March 7, 2010). "An Adagio for Strings, and for the Ages". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-03-07. 
  2. ^ "The Toscanini-Barber Brouhaha", from interview with Barbara Heyman, All Things Considered, Nov. 4, 2006.
  3. ^ Heyman, Barbara B (1992). Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 167. ISBN 0195090586. 
  4. ^ "The National Recording Registry 2005". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2007-04-27. 
  5. ^ a b c Lee, Douglas A. (2002). Masterworks of 20th Century Music: The Modern Repertory Of The Symphony Orchestra. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-93846-5. 
  6. ^ Barnes, Anthony (September 16, 2001). "Tradition yields to compassion". The Independent (London). Retrieved April 23, 2010. 
  7. ^ "A night of mourning as Winter Games officially begin". February 13, 2010. Retrieved July 11, 2010. 
  8. ^ PASC080: Toscanini - The 1938 Barber Première Concert, Today search for the world's saddest music and its shortlist
  9. ^ IMDB listing of films using music by Barber, almost all the Adagio
  10. ^ Keller, Johanna (March 7, 2010). "An Adagio for Strings, and for the Ages". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-03-07. 
  11. ^ [1], Soccer AM - Why? - Youtube Video
  12. ^ Higgins, Charlotte (March 28, 2006). "Big demand for classical downloads is music to ears of record industry". Guardian Unlimited (London).,,1741085,00.html. Retrieved April 23, 2010. 

External links

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Adagio_for_Strings". Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.

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