We all know his Adagio for Strings (from Platoon, if nowhere else), but little else Samuel Barber wrote. Leon McCawley urges a revival of a neglected 20th-century great
This year has seen a glut of important musical anniversaries. We've had Chopin aplenty, plus Schumann and Mahler to boot. Samuel Barber's centenary (1910-1981) has also fallen during this eventful season, but I guess we're out of candles and there's no more cake. Why has this wonderful composer somehow missed the cut?
At the tender age of nine, Barber left this touching note for his mother:
"Dear Mother: I have written this to tell you my worrying secret. Now don't cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I shall have to tell it now without any nonsense. To begin with I was not meant to be an athlete. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I'm sure. I'll ask you one more thing – don't ask me to try and forget this unpleasant thing and go and play football. Please – Sometimes I've been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very). Love, Sam Barber II."
His precocious sense of his musical destiny was indeed prophetic. Barber became one of the most important and honoured American composers of the 20th century. He wrote more than 100 songs, three operas, three concertos, two ballets, two symphonies and a variety of significant orchestral, choral, chamber and solo piano music. His most celebrated works include the beautifully conceived Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for soprano and orchestra, the wistful Violin Concerto, the powerful Piano Sonata (premiered by the great Russian virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz) and the Pulitzer-winning opera Vanessa. And of course his ubiquitous Adagio for Strings, which, despite countless metamophoses, including its use on the soundtracks to Oliver Stone's Platoon and David Lynch's The Elephant Man and its status as America's favoured state funeral music, remains an effectively poignant work. Only Anthony and Cleopatra, the commissioned work that opened the new Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1966, was considered a critical failure at its premiere – a severe blow for the composer, who felt the ravishing score contained some of his best music. (Its failure is now generally attributed to Franco Zeffirelli's elaborate and overblown production.)
Barber has been particularly praised for the lyrical quality of his music: memorable melodies abound throughout, and connect back to his happy childhood in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His aunt Louise Homer was a leading operatic contralto, and her husband, Sidney Homer, a talented composer who nurtured and supported his nephew's musical life. Barber's innate gift for setting unusual texts to music surely links back to these nostalgic days. Listen to Knoxville as sung by Leontyne Price and you'll understand what I mean. It moves me to tears every time I hear it. There's a sense of deep yearning and melancholia for this lost time. Like Barber, I had a very happy childhood, an equal dislike for football and a clear sense from an early age of my musical goal in life. Even though I now feel blessed to be realising my dream, there's perhaps a slight regret for all those lonely hours at the piano and all those moments I missed out on as a child. Maybe Barber felt the same way.
My first real introduction to Barber came as a student in 1991 at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, also Barber's alma mater. I arrived for my first lessons with the score of his Piano Sonata Op 26 in my hands. It seemed the ideal challenge for a young, budding pianist, with its punchy, energetic drive and knockout final Fugue. But I was keen to discover other aspects of Barber's music, and immersed myself in the many recordings of his works available in the Curtis library. I was bowled over by the soaring melodies and biting rhythms, all pulsating within a cohesive, cleverly conceived structure.
Barber's style can be described as neo-Romantic. He composed through a modernist lens, incorporating some 20th-century techniques, but sourced his main inspiration from the Romantic period, giving new life and vitality to the forms and tonal language of the past. Like Brahms, whose classical structures and baroque leanings sit comfortably next to his ardent Romanticism, Barber was stimulated by the rich legacy that lay before him (of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms), but he always sought new meaning, creating an individual and unmistakable voice for his own deeply felt poeticism.
Barber's music was initially well received in the UK and well represented on the concert scene. He had won praise from Vaughan Williams, who met and heard Barber perform in the US in 1932 (he was an accomplished baritone), and who congratulated him on his hauntingly evocative setting of Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach, scored for voice and string quartet: "I tried several times to set Dover Beach but you really got it!"
It seems his disappearance from our concert halls and CD shelves began in the 1960s. Peter Dickinson, in his recent Barber biography, suggests his neglect in the UK arose when Barber's works were too often compared with Britten – whose work shares some similarity in its traditional, tonal language – and deemed second rate to the British composer. Furthermore, with avant garde and Modernism sweeping across the musical landscape, Barber's works were felt to be outmoded and conservative, a feeling that still works against him today. As visual artists in the US such as Jackson Pollock were giving up draughtsmanship for abstract expressionism, American composers such as Elliot Carter and John Cage were shunning the tonality of their musical ancestors and searching for new possibilities in music. Even though Barber dipped occasionally in these waters of serialism (the Piano Sonata and Nocturne for solo piano feature 12-tone rows), it was always in a tonal context.
Another criticism has been that Barber's music is not American enough. Ironically, it was Copland, Gershwin and Bernstein, all born from Jewish immigrants, who strove to create the "American" sound, while Barber – from an old east coast American background, and distinctly Europhile – sought deeper for a style that transcended nationality.
Barber's editor Paul Wittke wrote of his friend: "He demanded very little – only intelligence and perfection. Always elegantly dressed and urbane in manner and speech, he seemed to belong to the world of Henry James and Edith Wharton. But beneath the aristocratic surface of his cosmopolitan gaiety lived a most private, dedicated and disciplined man."
Barber was a composer who remained devoted to his art, never wavering from what he believed in. We might often hear the Adagio for Strings and the Violin concerto, but I only wish we could celebrate more of his lesser-known works in concert: the wonderfully challenging Piano Concerto (another Pulitzer winner), Cello Concerto and Sonata, the many beautiful and contrastingly characterful songs, and his Essays for orchestra. With now only a few weeks to go before the end of the year, I hope we can light a few candles to honour this gifted composer and give him the acclaim he so richly deserves.
Leon McCawley performs works by Barber and Chopin at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on 1 December. His recording of Barber's piano music will be released by Somm Recordings in the spring.
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