Adagio--Music in the Slow Lane


Classical music provides countless thrills – virtuoso piano flourishes, explosive opera arias, huge orchestral climaxes with trumpets and drums blazing. But for many listeners, it's those quiet, slowly unfolding moments and exquisite melodies that can eliminate stress, lower blood pressure and elicit sighs and smiles. Come relax and engage in some day-dreaming, as this Active Minds program offers a sampling of some of music's most beautiful moments, from the Baroque to the 20th Century. There will be plenty of Mozart, plus some wonderful surprises.


We live with contrasts – the world is full of them. Day and night, joy and sadness, noise and silence, yin and yang, male and female. The list is endless. And so, in music we can experience two different viewpoints in close proximity. Beethoven understood that. Just listen to the opening of his famous Fifth Symphony: Four powerful notes, followed by four equally powerful ones, followed by a quiet echoing of that idea. Loud – Soft. We hear a similar contrast in the opening movement of a Mozart Symphony, grabbing our attention with a forceful first theme, succeeded by a quieter, more intimate melody. And so it is with nearly every multiple-movement work composed over the last few centuries. As much as we get energized by the big-and-loud openings and closings of Symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms and others, their slow movements are often the ones we often remember the most. You probably know the unexpectedly quiet first movement of Beethoven's “Moonlight” Sonata – but do you know the two that follow? Probably not. It is human nature to embrace a beautiful melody that warms our souls and remains hummable for days. The concept of an Adagio (Italian for slow) goes back to the popular Laments of the late Renaissance, achingly sad songs or arias that drew audible sobs from listeners, who seemed to enjoy a good cry. Since party-goers through the generations have enjoyed dancing, it's no surprise that collections of dance tunes always included a slow tempo such as the Spanish Sarabande. Just as some grown-ups today worry about kids slow-dancing close together, so too was the gently swaying Sarabande viewed as a dangerously sensual thing. Sacred music always turned slow and introspective when the sung text told of Christ's crucifixion or Mary's grief. In the Baroque Era (1600 to mid-1700s), the concerto was born, consisting of two quick outer movements and a slow central Adagio or Andante (meaning a walking pace). Many of those slow segments have become universally popular, such as Pachelbel's Canon. The 19th Century in music is known as the Romantic Era, and is filled with achingly lovely slow melodies, found in symphonies, sonatas and chamber works by Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and others. Funeral marches were common in works by Beethoven and Chopin. Even in the loud and chaotic 20th Century, composers stepped away from their jarring, cacophonous music to turn all soft and mellow – as in the Second Prokofiev Violin concerto, Barber's Adagio for Strings and Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto. It's the same thing in the world of popular music, even rock 'n' roll. For all their hard-driving rockers, the Beatles are perhaps best-known for ballads such as “Yesterday,” “And I Love Her,” “Here, There and Everywhere” and “In My Life.” Simply put, music – as in life – requires changes in mood and changes in tempo to bring a sense of order, predictability and completeness.

Exploration Questions

  • What are some other Italian tempo indications besides Adagio and Andante?
  • What do Beethoven's “Moonlight” Sonata and Tchaikovsky's “Pathetique” Symphony have in common? (Hint: Look at the order of movements.)
  • Why do so many Baroque orchestral works begin with a slow, ponderous prelude?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you prefer slow-and-sad music, or slow-and-blissfully romantic music?
  • When do you prefer to listen to quiet music – in the mornings or evenings?
  • Which Adagio is your favorite? Why?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Plume/Penguin. 2007. 322 pages. For those fascinated by our long relationship with music, here is a thoughtful, revelatory examination of how our brains are essentially designed to respond to music.
    Click here to order