Samuel Barber didn’t concern himself with the various arguments of American music: tonal vs. atonal, Stravinsky vs. Schoenberg, old-guard vs. modern. He didn’t belong to any particular camp or school. He just wrote music. To paraphrase Barber himself, he quietly did his own thing and let others worry about where it all fit.
One of the most outstanding aspects of his work is his wonderful talent for melody. Almost everything he wrote has at least one gorgeous tune or memorable theme. His emphasis on melody led some to label him “Neo-Romantic”, but almost nothing he wrote could have been produced in the Romantic era. His harmonies are too complex and sometimes extremely dissonant, his approach to form is as modern as Stravinsky’s, and his orchestration is usually quite experimental. The fullness and richness of his music, and its appeal to a wide audience, attest to the success of his various experiments.
Some of Barber’s more famous works are described below:
Adagio for Strings – written in 1936, from the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11
Barber’s Adagio is perhaps his most famous and beloved work, a piece that has entered the collective conscious as one of the deepest expressions of grief in the classical repertoire. It was played at the state funerals of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and in November 2001 it was performed as a memorial to the World Trade Center victims. It has become known as the “semi-official music of mourning”.
The Adagio was written by Barber when he was 26 years old. At the premiere of his String Quartet No. 1, the second movement brought a standing ovation in the middle of the performance – an almost unprecedented occasion! The beauty and instant popularity of this movement caused Barber to create the orchestral version, which was premiered by Arturo Toscanini in 1938. Toscanini almost never performed works by American composers, and yet he chose two pieces by Barber, as the centerpieces of his November 5, 1938 program which was broadcast to over a million radio listeners.
Here is a historic recording of Adagio For Strings, with Leonard Bernstein conducting:
The slow, inexorable melodic line and the gently insistent harmonic motion take us ever upward to a climax of intense emotion, then move quietly away. Each note, each rhythm, each chord seems inevitable, like a force of nature.
This composition is considered by many to be the most popular of all 20th-century orchestral works. “You never are in any doubt about what this piece is about,” says music historian Barbara Heyman. “There’s a kind of sadness and poetry about it. It has a melodic gesture that reaches an arch, like a big sigh… and then exhales and fades off into nothingness.”
Canzone (Elegy), Op. 38a, transcribed in 1961
Canzone is a great example of a common compositional practice of “self-borrowing”. This piece was originally entitled “Elegy”, and written for the flutist Manfred Ibel in 1959. Two years later Barber renamed it to “Canzone for Manfred”. The melody of Canzone became the main theme of the slow movement of his Piano Concerto, op. 38. After the Piano Concerto was published, Barber revisited Canzone as op. 38a and catalogued it as a transcription of the Piano Concerto’s second movement.
Here is a recording of John Browning playing the 2nd movement of the Piano Concerto, with George Szell conducting the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra:
Notice the similarities and differences between the two pieces, as you listen to a performance of the Canzone by Thomas Robertello, flute and Kumi Mizuno, piano:
The beginning and end of both pieces is nearly identical. However, in the Piano Concerto, the mood of the second movement is generally restful and lyrical, whereas in Canzone, the lyricism quickly reaches an impassioned and chromatic peak.
Knoxville, Summer of 1915 – Opus 24 written in 1947:
Barber described this piece as a “lyric rhapsody”. Lush, richly textured, this piece paints a dreamy picture of an evening in the American South, narrated by a soprano who moves seamlessly between the world of a child and the contemplation of an adult. Both words and music often have the vivid painting of a dream, more feeling than rational understanding. This piece can be sung by soprano or tenor. The text is taken from James Agee’s prose:
…It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds’ hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt: a loud auto: a quiet auto: people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard, and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squaring with clowns in hueless amber.
A streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping; belling and starting, stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints; halts; the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter; fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone: forgotten. Now is the night one blue dew.
Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose.
Low in the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes…
Parents on porches: rock and rock. From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces.
The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.
On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there.…They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine,…with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me.
By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.
After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.
Piano Concerto, op. 38 – written from 1960 – 1962, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1963:
Barber’s piano concerto was written for pianist John Browning. The first two movements were written in 1960, but the last movement was not completed until 15 days before its world premiere! Legend has it that the piano part of the third movement was unplayable. “Look, I can play it”, Barber supposedly told Browning days before the premiere and promptly sat at the keyboard and played. “But you’ve written it at this speed” Browning responded, indicating a tempo marking many times faster than Barber’s demonstration. Barber resisted reworking this part until Horowitz seconded Browning’s opinion – the original was simply not playable at the speed written! Composers note – it’s good to work closely with your performers and pay attention to their protests!
The piano concerto consists of three movements:
- Allegro appassionato
- Canzone: Moderato
- Allegro molto
The Hermit Songs, op. 29 written in 1953
Probably Barber’s best-known set of songs is the Hermit Songs Op 29, a group of ten settings of translations of medieval Gaelic or Latin poems attributed to Irish saints and holy persons. The composer himself wrote of the songs: ‘They are settings of anonymous Irish texts of the eighth to thirteenth centuries written by monks and scholars, often on the margins of manuscripts they were copying or illuminating—perhaps not always meant to be seen by their Father Superiors. They are small poems, thoughts or observations, some very short, and speak in straightforward, droll, and often surprisingly modern terms of the simple life these men led, close to nature, to animals and to God.’
Here is a sampling of Hermit Songs, sung by the legendary Leontyne Price:
The ten songs of the cycle and the respective translators of each poem are as follows:
- “At St Patrick’s Purgatory” (translated by Seán Ó Faoláin)
- “Church Bell at Night” (translated by Howard Mumford Jones)
- “St Ita’s Vision” (translated by Chester Kallman)
- “The Heavenly Banquet” (translated by Seán Ó Faoláin)
- “The Crucifixion” (translated by Howard Mumford Jones)
- “Sea Snatch” (translated by Kenneth Jackson)
- “Promiscuity” (translated by Kenneth Jackson)
- “The Monk and his Cat” (translated by W.H. Auden)
- “The Praises of God” (translated by W.H. Auden)
- “The Desire for Hermitage” (translated by Seán Ó Faoláin)
Some are literal translations and others, were translated (where existing translations seemed inadequate.) Robin Flower has written in The Irish Tradition: “It was not only that these scribes and anchorites lived by the destiny of their dedication in an environment of wood and sea; it was because they brought into that environment an eye washed miraculously clear by a continual spiritual exercise that they had that strange vision of natural things in an almost unnatural purity.”
Full text for all ten songs is here: Hermit Songs – Text