Defining Terms: Adagio

The first hour of Tuesday morning’s NEPR classical music will be bookended by interesting new takes on two oft-encountered masterworks of musical serenity:  Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio” to start at 9:00, then at 10:00, Samuel Barber’s “Agnus Dei,” the choral version of Barber’s famed “Adagio for Strings.”  Both come from new CD by the Orchestra and Chorus of Ensemble Caprice, Matthias Maute, conducting.  The CD’s name: “Adagio.”

That’s three times in one paragraph for the word “adagio.”  Isn’t it about time I told you what it meant?

The term comes from the Italian for “at ease” (ad agio), and has been used for about 400 years by composers as their tempo indication for a work or movement to be played or sung slowly.  How slowly?  That’s a matter both of historical contention as well as interpretation.  One can only guess what the earliest composers to use the term (e.g.,  Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, Banchieri) meant by it, if indeed that meant the same thing at all.  But by the time of Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s 1778 Dictionnaire de musique (.pdf here), the word’s meaning was quite clear: Ce mot écrit à la tête d’un Air, désigne le sécond , du lent au vite , des cinq principaux dégrés de Mouvement distingués dans la Musique Italienne.  (“This word, written at the head of an Air, designates the second, from slow to fast, of the five principal degrees of tempo as distinguished in Italian music.”)  Consulting the word “Mouvement” (tempo) as directed by the polymathic Rousseau, we see that Adagio is faster than Largo, but slower than Andante, Allegro and Presto.  That settles it, right?

Well, maybe for a generation.  Then came Beethoven, and the sublime Adagios (note the use of the word as a noun rather than adjective) of his 27th (“Hammerklavier”) and 32nd Piano Sonatas, and of three of his late Quartets, including the remarkable “Heiliger Dankgesang” (“Holy Song of Thanks”) from the Quartet, Op. 132.  Picking up from Beethoven a generation later, Richard Wagner developed the aesthetic of the “endless melody,” establishing the slow tempos and smooth, elastic pharasing that have dominated mainstream classical interpretation to this day — or at least until the recent advent and influence of the early music movement, with its sprightlier tempos and crisper articulation.  You can hear this Beethoven-Wagner “Adagio” in the cathedral-like Symphonies of Anton Bruckner, who used the term for most of his exalted slow movements.   Bruckner’s symphonic successor, Gustav Mahler, who usually preferred German indications to Italian, further defined the style in the “Adagietto” (“Little Adagio”) for strings and harp in his Symphony No. 5, the shattering Adagio finale of his 9th and last completed Symphony, and the opening movement of his unfinished Symphony No. 10.  So, by the beginning of the 20th century, there was nothing “easy” about Adagios. Now, as then, whether used as an adjective or a noun, the word connotes something very important, very serious and very, very slow.

As did other typical movements from longer works, like the Scherzo and the Rondo, eventually the Adagio broke away and became its own genre, hence the two Adagios in Tuesday’s 9:00 hour.  But actually, both of these Adagios deserve an asterisk.  In the case of the “Albinoni Adagio,” it turns out that Tomaso Albinoni (left),the Venetian Baroque composer, didn’t write it at all.  Rather, it’s the handiwork of 20th-century Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto (right), an Albinoni specialist who first claimed to have fleshed it out from a fragmentary work he disovered in his research — then admitted that he made the whole thing up himself.  Nonetheless, it remains Albinoni’s best-known work, and a favorite on Baroque greatest hits compilations.  Even though Albinoni didn’t write it and it ain’t Baroque.  Nonetheless, Tuesday’s performance by Ensemble Caprice, a Canadian ensemble known for their authentic Baroque interpretations, adds some frankly anachronisitic but enjoyable Baroque touches to Giazotto’s popular pasticcio.

Tuesday’s second Adagio, Samuel Barber’s, originated as the central slow movement of the American composer’s 1936 String Quartet.  It was the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini who requested that Barber (above) arrange the movement for string orchestra, after which Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” quickly took on a life of its own.  Since its broadcast following the news of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Barber’s work has become our unoffical classical anthem of memorial and loss, lending its emotional gravity to several film scores, television programs and commemorative events.  Tuesday’s performance by Ensemble Caprice is not an instrumental, however.  In 1967, Barber prepared a choral version of the “Adagio,” setting it to the final words of the “ordinary” of the Latin Mass (i.e., the sections of the Mass that are spoken or sung in each service): “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.” (“Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, grant us piece.”)  Take it from your humble blogger: Singing this music severely tests ones lung capacity and endurance, but also inspires and exhilarates.  Better to recall the original of Adagio and remain “at ease” while the Ensemble Caprice’s singers do the hard work.



  1. Anonymous says

    Thanks once again, John!! I learned the etymology of ‘arpeggio’ from you on air this week, and now so much more about ‘adagio’! And such a surprise about Albinioni’s! 

    P.s. I’m writing on my iPhone on my newly downloaded NEPR app! Cool tool!

  2. Anonymous says

    But now I’m nervous — next thing you’ll be telling us that Pachelbel’s Canon isn’t by Pachelbel?

    But maybe there’s still hope for Albinoni — Wikipedia says, ” … although the recent discovery by musicologist Muska Mangano, Giazotto’s last assistant, of a modern but independent manuscript transcription of the figured bass portion and six fragmentary bars of the first violin, “bearing in the top right-hand corner a stamp stating unequivocally the Dresden provenance of the original from which it was taken,” provides some support for Giazotto’s account that Albinoni was his source.”

  3. John Montanari says

    I think our beloved masterworks are pretty safe…though even Bach has had his authorship of the Cello Suites and Toccata and Fugue in D minor challenged.  Here are some earlier blogthoughts on misattributions and downright fraud.  And I could well add other instances to the latter, such as the so-called “Adélaïde” Concerto palmed off as Mozart, but actually composed by Marius Casadesus.  As for the “Albinoni,” I’m sticking with our man Remo.


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