The reference librarians at Seattle Public Library are pretty darn amazing. They don’t know everything, instead they know where to find everything. As part of an irregular series of posts we salute the talented and dedicated reference staff at your local library. Names and other identifying information have been removed from the questions we showcase. Got a stumper? Click on Ask a Librarian. It’s what we do.
“…In high school, I played in a chamber orchestra… I remember we played a very beautiful piece by Samuel Barber. It was written for string quartet and orchestra, like a string quartet concerto. At least I think it was Barber… I want to find this piece again, but I can’t figure out what it was called?? It was 16 years ago…”
From your description, I believe that it is the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. I looked at the list of Barber’s works and this seems to be the best match for the criteria you gave. This piece was originally written as a movement in Barber’s String Quartet, opus 11, and was arranged for orchestra. It is very popular, very sad and a very beautiful classical piece. It was played at the funerals of President Franklin Roosevelt and Prince Rainier of Monaco and was also performed at a memorial service for the victims of the September 11th attacks. You can read about the history of the piece in an excellent article on Classical.net by clicking on this link, Adagio for Strings, Op 11 Since this piece is so popular, you can also watch a YouTube video of the BBC orchestra playing the Adagio at the September 15 2001memorial concert or listen to a recording at Last.fm.
I also have requested both the orchestral version and the quartet version in compact disc for you to pick up at the Library. The printed music is available in a miniature score string quartet version, and two performing editions, one for piano and one for organ, in case you are interested in revisiting the piece for yourself.