The term ‘adagio‘ means slowly in Italian, the language from which most of our musical terminology comes from. As such, adagios usually designates a slow movement bookended by movements that are faster in tempo, like scherzos or allegros. I often consider the lilting adagio movements to be the most beautiful and moving parts of classical works.
We begin with the Italian Baroque composer, Tomaso Albinoni (b. 1671–1751), and his Adagio in G minor for Strings and Organ. Though normally attributed to the Venetian master, some say it was actually composed by a modern musicologist and composer named Remo Giazotto (b. 1910–1998), who found a fragment of a musical manuscript that had been previously sketched by Albinoni and fleshed it out into the masterpiece popularly heard today.
Whatever the attribution, the Albinoni adagio is a tremendously moving piece, and you’ve probably heard it even if you don’t know it by name: it was used in Orson Welles’s 1962 film adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (a great black-and-white film shot in what is now the Musée d’Orsay, starring Tony Perkins). Other films that have featured this masterwork include Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Rollerball, Flashdance, and, most recently, The Inbetweeners. The work has also been used frequently on television shows.
Next, we’ll listen to the second adagio movement from Johannes Brahm’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (he only wrote two). The version with Rudolf Serkin on piano, accompanied by the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of conductor, George Szell, has long been a favorite of mine. Brahms composed the concerto in 1858 and debuted it in Hanover, Germany, the following year, as his first-ever orchestral piece to be performed live. He was lucky enough to attain popularity during his lifetime.
Finally, we turn to another blockbuster: the fourth Adagietto movement by the Austrian-born, Romantic composer Gustav Mahler from his Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp minor, penned between 1901–02. Mahler included the notation, ‘sehr langsam,’ which translates to mean very slowly. You’ll hear the piece build gradually to a climax with the most sublime resolution. Like Albinoni’s much earlier work, Mahler’s Adagietto has also been featured in films, notably the 1971 Death in Venice by Luchino Visconti, based on German author Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella. The late conductor, Leonard Bernstein, did a great deal to perform and help popularize Mahler in America and just about everywhere else. Just listen to his impassioned performance of the Adagietto.
There are more adagios I adore than I was able to feature on this week’s Rhythm Planet show, so stay tuned for another feature on Art of the Sublime: Adagios, Part 2 later this fall, with works by Maurice Ravel, Samuel Barber, and—none other than the wunderkind himself—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.