On this National Day of Reflection, as we look back over an awful year when so many have been touched by grief and loss, we recognise the unique ability that music has to console whilst unlocking our deepest emotions. Various pieces have become almost iconic in this regard. Dido's Lament by Purcell and Elgar's Nimrod form part of the Remembrance Day celebrations each November, but there is one piece which seems to get to the heart of grief more than almost any other - Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. Originally written for string quartet it has become very familiar in its string orchestra version. It lasts just ten minutes.
It was played at the last night of the Proms in 2001 in memory of those who died on 9/11. It was played in an empty hall and broadcast the day after JFK's assassination and more recently it was performed by 150 musicians in Trafalgar Square after the Charlie Hebdo attack and by the Berlin Philharmonic in June last year to commemorate those who had died in the early stages of the pandemic. In addition to strings, it has also been transcribed for unaccompanied choir to the words of the Agnus Dei.
Beginning with a quiet whispered chord the first violin line then moves ever upwards only to fall and begin to climb again as if yearning for an unattainable future. The piece develops to an impassioned climax and then fades away into the mists from which it arose. Even in deepest grief it offers balm to the soul.
Vienna Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel play The Barber Adagio - click here
Voces 8 sing the Barber Adagio/Agnus Dei click here
Leonard Slatkin conducts the Last Night of the Proms in 2001 click here