Samuel Barber: Agnus Dei


Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei is a choral arrangement of his timeless work, Adagio for Strings. Barber set the Latin words from the liturgical Agnus Dei to his original 1936 work in 1967, with the score calling for a mixed chorus and optional accompaniment. 


The Music

It has been said that Barber set religious words to this theme after reflecting for some time on how Adagio for Strings was taken by the public and critics. After seeing how people associated his music with mourning and passion, Barber wanted to add a spiritual twist to this famous theme. Marked up similarly to the original, the slow introduction of the voices at the start set the scene for the rest of the piece. Barber uses the words of Agnus Dei to dictate which voices should be set to what voicings from the original. Initially it is the soprano who take the lead with the melody, but later on some of the other voices take the reigns of the melody. 

The repetition of the phrase ‘Agnus Dei’, meaning ‘Lamb of God’, is significant as it shows what Barber was wanting from this arrangement. The haunting atmosphere of Agnus Dei has a similar effect to Adagio for Strings, with both using sustained lines and slow-moving melodies to create the desired effect. Although perhaps not as famous as Adagio for String, Agnus Dei is popular within the choral circuit, with there being a number of groundbreaking vocal recordings of the work.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

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