Overture to The School for Scandal, Op. 5 (1931)
Barber was just 21 and still a student at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute when he composed this overture, “suggested by Sheridan’s comedy” of the same name. It is one of several of his works inspired by literature. The sparkling, energetic concert piece wasn’t intended for any particular production of Sheridan’s 1777 comedy of manners, but rather to capture the spirit of the play. Premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1933, the Overture earned the composer Columbia University’s Bearns Prize. The music, like the comedy itself, reflects the maneuverings and high-spirited hijinks of characters with hilarious names like Lady Sneerwell, Sir Benjamin Backbite, Mrs. Candor, and Sir Peter Teazle as they engage in spreading unfounded rumors. The moods of the music shift swiftly, from dissonant to vivacious, from lively to lyrical, finishing with a rowdy flourish. One of the most delightful curtain-raisers in the repertoire.
Andromache’s Farewell for soprano and orchestra, Op. 39 (1962)
If you haven’t read your Homer recently or seen the movie Troy (the most recent filmed attempt to tell the story stars Brad Pitt as Achilles, Saffron Burrows as Andromache) you may find a context-setting of this heart-wrenching monologue helpful. Samuel Barber himself provided it: “Scene: an open space before Troy, which has just been captured by the Greeks. All Trojan men have been killed or have fled and the women and children are held captives. Each Trojan woman has been allotted to a Greek warrior and the ships are now ready to take them into exile. Andromache, widow of Hector, Prince of Troy, has been given as a slave-wife to the son of Achilles. She has just been told that she cannot take her little son [Astyanax] with her in the ship, for it has been decreed by the Greeks that a hero’s son must not be allowed to live and that he is to be hurled over the battlements of Troy. She bids him farewell. In the background the city is burning. It is just before dawn.” This “Farewell” was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic under Thomas Schippers in honor of its first season at Lincoln Center, and for the great soprano Martina Arroyo. The compact soliloquy embodies a range of feelings—dignity, grief, anger, and desperation—in both the vocal line and the riveting orchestral accompaniment. Barber completed the piece after auditioning Arroyo, who said, “The finishing touches were tailored to my voice…the pianissimo, the crescendo, for example, in some of the phrases,” when Andromache expresses her rage over the impending murder of Astyanax. A New York Times review of the San Francisco Symphony’s performance stated that Deborah Voigt “had all the elements in the right proportions: sheer vocal power, emotional depth and range, and the ability to project the text… Her performance was wrenching and irresistible.”
Download the program notes as a PDF file here: Barber_School for Scandal_1112.