Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"Agnus Dei," Samuel Barber, 1967

Memorial Day, a year ago.

I sat in the sweltering cab of the threadbare truck, seeking a brief reprieve from the sun that baked the deep dry slash along the power line right-of-way. Sweat soaked my shirt and shorts; the glare made my eyes hurt. Small dark things crawled among the hairs of my calves. The last year and a half had been an unremitting struggle. Waking every morning for a job I hated more with each passing moment; barely bringing home enough to retard our long slow slide to the precipice; fighting with a bank the very epitome of mindless, heartless, soulless bureaucracy; waking in the middle of each night to wonder what worse thing the next dawn could possibly bring.

Hanging my head and panting from the heat and exertion, I flicked on the radio. The first notes from the radio seized me, held me, and like a single shard of glass, sliced me open from head to toe. I began to sob uncontrollably, tears mingling with the sweat streaming down my face.

“Agnus Dei,” Samuel Barber's choral arrangement of that part of the Latin liturgy to his own “Adagio for Strings.” Three lines—a total of just eleven separate latin words—sung so the words nearly disappear:
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 sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.
I am old enough to have sat through many a latin mass in my formative years. Yet I doubt my conscious mind made a connection between the ethereal music I heard that blazing noon and those ancient words buried so deep. But there is no missing or mistaking the soul-wrenching depth of emotion conveyed in that simple, spare, elegant piece. I have written before about the power of 'Adagio,' yet this version manages to surpass the original in conveying such immense sorrow and release in such a restrained and concise package. 

This is the version that cut through my callus that day: Sung a cappella by the Choir of Trinity College, Oxford, conducted by Richard Marlow. This might straight-up be the most beautiful and moving nine-and-a-half minutes of music I can imagine.

[Addendum, September 9, 2016: I have long wondered when listening to this version why I cannot simply 'follow along with the lyrics.' It is the nature of choral music; the four parts (Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass) sing the lyrics at different paces, passing the melody from one to another at different measures. At the emotional climax of the piece, around the seven-minute mark, the four voices come together on the word 'pacem' ('peace'), followed by a long silence, then reprising the phrase 'dona nobis pacem' ('grant us peace'). For details, see ]

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