Samuel Barber composed the work in 1936 and turned it into a hymn in the 60s.
In 1986, Oliver Stone directed the star studded cast of Platoon to depict the horrors of the Vietnam war. One of the most gripping moments of the film is when the soldier Elias, played by Willem DaFoe, gets left behind as the troops are withdrawing. The scene is made all the more poignant by a very sad orchestral tune that plays over the scene, but what many may not know is that the song is also a Catholic hymn.
The piece “Adagio for Strings,” was written by Samuel Barber in 1936. The tune was the second movement of a larger work, but it is the most recognizable section. It was one of Barber’s most popular melodies and one he felt very close to. In 1967, he revisited the orchestral composition and put to it the Latin text of the “Agnus Dei.”
Marked by cascading melodies and a round-like pattern throughout the voice parts, the orchestral composition was flawlessly transformed into a piece of sacred choral music. One of the reasons the song is so emotive as a hymn is due to the strong and consistent use of dynamics, or the variation in volume of the singers. There are few moments when the entire chorus sings together in full-voice. The melodic line is usually loudest while the others are singing softly around it in support.
The Angus Dei prayer comes from the liturgy, translating literally to “Lamb of God.” The prayer comes at the essential moment of the Mass when the priest is consecrating the host. In Barber’s piece, the lyrics transform the melancholic melody into one of wonder and amazement over the transubstantiation.
Listen to the full orchestral work below.