Agnus Dei – Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

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Samuel Osborne Barber was born March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, to a comfortable and well-educated family, whose lineage was British, Irish, and Scottish. Like many homes, the Barbers’ had a piano, and Sam and his younger sister, Sara, received piano and voice lessons. The boy had a preternatural gift for composition. One source has him “making up tunes on the piano” at the age of two. He penned his first piano piece, prophetically entitled Sadness, twenty-three bars in C Minor, at age seven; an incomplete operetta, The Rose Tree, came at ten.

So intense was Sam’s passion for composition and playing—he was a church organist at age twelve—that his aunt and uncle interceded: the boy needed higher-level instruction, the sooner the better. At fourteen, he was the second student to enroll in the newly opened Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Every Friday morning, he rode the train in from West Chester to study composition, voice, piano, and conducting. In the afternoons, he heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under the great Leopold Stokowski.

At the age of twenty-six Barber composed what came to be one of the best-known works of the 20th century: Adagio for Strings. This piece is his own arrangement of the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. It is an example of the arch form, which builds on a melody that first ascends and then descends in stepwise fashion. The piece builds in tension slowly and persistently, then releases the tension little by little, and ends on an unresolved dominant chord, as though there were more to come. In 1967 the composer himself arranged the Adagio for mixed choir, the version we hear in this recording.

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, who takes away the sin of the world: have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world: have mercy upon us.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world: grant us peace.

 

Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, 3rd movement – Molto adagio (“Heilige dankgesang”) – Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

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The last few years of his life were not good to Beethoven. Increasing deafness and alienation from friends and family were compounded by a near-fatal intestinal illness. On his doctor’s orders he changed his diet and left Vienna for rest at the nearby spa of Baden. While there, he wrote the Heiliger Dankgesang – the Holy Song of Thanksgiving. Like the Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings, it begins at a glacial pace, but after about three minutes everything shifts, and the first austere minutes transform into an optimistic universe of harmonies and trills. In the score Beethoven labels this second section of the piece as Neue Kraft fühlend, or Feeling New Strength.

In a BBC online magazine article from this past July, Andrea Valentino explores how the Song of Thanksgiving came about. As he puts it, “if the Heiliger Dankgesang is partly an uncomplicated prayer of thanks to the Almighty, and partly a meditation on sickness and health, it may also symbolise the immense power of music – notes – to keep people going in times of strife.” The music of healing represented by this movement of a late Beethoven string quartet occurs over the course of nearly 20 minutes. Consider pouring a cup of tea and finding a quiet corner to absorb it fully. To read the full BBC article, click here

Gerald Harder