Great Adagios, Part 2: Samuel Barber, Mozart, Ravel

We previously checked out some great adagios on Rhythm Planet on August 28 with music by Albinoni, Brahms, and Mahler.

Today let’s check out three other ones by Samuel Barber, Mozart, and Ravel.

Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is probably the most famous of the three. The sweeping work started as the second movement for a string quartet he wrote in 1936. The composer later (1967) adapted the work for a mass, Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). The Adagio for Strings was initially performed by Arturo Toscanini, who memorized the work after Barber sent it to him, and didn’t look at it again until the day before the premiere in 1938 in a radio broadcast. Toscanini later took the work on the road through South America and Europe, and it became famous. It is sad and moving, and was chosen for the funeral music for Albert Einstein, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. It was also used in the filmPlatoon.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Adagio from Piano Concerto #23

This is one of Mozart’s loveliest adagios (others include concertos #19 and #21). It was performed by the composer himself in 1786, the same year his opera The Marriage of Figaro debuted. It is soft, tender, and lilting, and I think it has been used in films but I can’t find any references to that?

Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G

Ravel wrote only two piano concerti: one in G (1931) and the other for the left hand, the latter being written for Paul Wittgenstein (brother of philosopher Ludvig), a pianist who lost his right arm as a soldier in World War One.

The first and third movements are very jazzy; Ravel was influenced by jazz music in the U.S. and the jazz that became popular in Europe after the first world war, when American jazzmen like bandleader James Reese Europe stayed on after the war and shared their hot new music with Europeans. The middle movement, as the term adagio suggests, is slow and floating. The piano parts are almost spare, at times almost like Satie’s piano miniatures. I have always been moved by this work, and have been a Ravel fan most of my life.

Here is video of Barber’s Adagio performed after the 9/11 tragedy:

Mozart’s Adagio from #23 performed by pianist Helene Grimaud:

Finally, the Ravel with pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli:


Tom Schnabel