Work: Agnus Dei, Op. 11
About This Work
When Samuel Barber transcribed the second movement of his String Quartet No. 1 (1936) for string orchestra at the behest of conductor Arturo Toscanini, he created what became one of the most popular concert works ever written by an American. The
Adagio for Strings (1938) became America's (and the world's) music of mourning. In addition to its tragic associations, the slowly unwinding cantilena evoked feelings in listeners that ranged from nostalgia to love to sexual passion.
In recasting the Adagio for mixed choir in 1967, Barber brought to the surface the work's sense of spirituality. In contrast to the sentimental Romanticism of the original, the use of voices here provides a reverent Renaissance quality reminiscent of the music of Palestrina or Gabrieli. The Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) from the Catholic mass, a humble request for forgiveness and peace, provides the text. Barber's setting is immaculate; the intense climax conveys the most urgent portion of the text, "miserere nobis" (have mercy on us), while the blissfully contented conclusion begs, "dona nobis pacem" (grant us peace). The notes themselves are essentially unchanged from the Adagio, aside from a few necessary voicing adjustments to accommodate the sopranos. From a performance standpoint, the Agnus Dei is one of the more difficult works in the choral repertoire, requiring immense lung capacity, ability to sustain long lines, and an extensive dynamic range.
- Graham Olson
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