Samuel Barber – First Essay for Orchestra op. 12 (1937)

Of the handful of 20th century American composers rightly esteemed as genuine practitioners of Romantic compositional styles, Samuel Barber is quite possibly the prime exemplar. Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1910, Barber was the prototypical musical wunderkind, setting to work on his first opera at the age of nine. In 1924, he became one of the first students to enroll in the now-renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and a number of his most popular and enduring works, such as The School for Scandal Overture and Dover Beach for voice and string quartet, were written while Barber was still a student at the Curtis Institute.

Barber’s Essay for Orchestra (later re-titled First Essay for Orchestra following returns to the form in 1942 and 1978) was written in 1937, ostensibly at the behest of Arturo Toscanini, and given its premiere the following year, along with Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The Italian cellist-turned-conductor was an unusually keen champion of Barber’s music, which contributed significantly to the young composer’s early fame and international recognition. The attention and high praise of Artur Rodzinski and Ralph Vaughan Williams also helped to ensure Samuel Barber’s early place among the pantheon of distinguished American composers.

The musical “essay,” a form of Barber’s own rather clever invention and one with which he had some previous success over a decade earlier in his Three Essays for Piano, is a medium much like its more familiar literary counterpart. As with a written essay, the idea behind a musical essay is the development of a complex, well-reasoned, thoughtful work drawn from a single melodic thesis.

The Essay begins with divided violas and cellos gently stating the work’s main theme in a mournful, languid Andante sostenuto. This same theme is soon taken over by upper strings, while briefly joined by the horns, and is only partially developed by an iridescent brass choir. A short-lived animated section is heralded by oboes, clarinets, horns, and trumpets followed by a restatement of the first theme, this time by the full orchestra. The transition to the work’s frenzied middle section comes as lower strings offer counterpoint to the horn’s repetition of the earlier theme. This middle section contains some of the Essay’s more intricate and animated writing, with strings playing light, nimble rhythmic figures in triple meter evocative of a symphonic scherzo. Soon, woodwinds and piano mimic this pattern while strings accompany with pizzicato quarter notes before returning to the figure they first introduced. Much momentum builds as the piece rushes to an exasperated climax then quickly tapers off. The work ends with a highly unsettling “question” posited by a trio of trumpets and tentatively answered by hushed violins set against a backdrop of grumbling timpani. [Source]

– J. Anthony McAlister is a cellist and writer currently at work on a fictional account of the abdication of King Edward VIII.

The New York Philharmonic Opening Night

The New York Philharmonic are performing two compositions by Samuel Barber on opening night tomorrow:

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.

Samuel Barber would have turned 100 tomorrow, and the interpretations still diverge

Tomorrow marks 100 years since the birth of American composer Samuel Barber (who died in 1981). There’s a brief overview of his life and work on the National Public Radio website, where you can hear Barber in a radio interview, as well as hear samples of some of his less-well-known music. But there’s little of substance on offer.

For example, the NPR bio doesn’t mention how creatively blocked Barber became after the difficult birth and reception of Antony and Cleopatra at the Met in 1966.

The Van Cliburn Piano Competition commissioned Barber to write a test piece for its 1977 contest. Accounts say it was a year of torture for the composer. The resulting Op. 46 Ballade was to be his final piano composition.

Read the full blog posting here.

Happy Birthday, Sam

By Albert Imperato, Gramophone

Tuesday is the centenary of the birth of the great American composer Samuel Barber (March 9, 1910 – January 23, 1981). I have heard a few music industry friends wondering aloud if enough attention has been paid to Barber this season, and my gut feeling is that it hasn’t. Though I’ve seen a few high-profile feature stories about Barber (such as Johanna Keller’s tracing of the fame of the composer’s mega-hit “Adagio” in the New York Times), I can’t say that there’s been anything approaching a real buzz in terms of overall visibility.

Read the full blog posting here.

Samuel Barber 100

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings begins softly, with a single note, a B flat, played by the violins. Two beats later the lower strings enter, creating an uneasy, shifting suspension as the melody begins a stepwise motion, like the hesitant climbing of stairs. In around eight minutes the piece is over, harmonically unresolved, never coming to rest. If any music can come close to conveying the effect of a sigh, or courage in the face of tragedy, or hope, or abiding love, it is this.

Barber’s centenary year (he was born on March 9, 1910, and died in 1981) is being celebrated by performances of his works, including the Adagio, his most famous composition and arguably the most often-heard work of classical music written in the last century.

The Adagio is a shape shifter, widely appropriated in film and television. In recent years it has also become an unexpected hit for a number of pop musicians and remix artists, including the Dutch mixer and producer DJ Tiësto. His 2003 version of the Adagio is still on his set list, he said, because audiences expect him to play it.

“The reaction is phenomenal,” he said recently by phone. “When I play the Adagio, and they hear the bass line and the high sounds, people start screaming. Then at the first break of the track, people scream again. The reactions are the same, all around the world.”

Could we be talking about the same piece?

Read the full article in The New York Times here.

Photo: Tom Krause and Samuel Barber during a rehearsal of The Lovers, Academy of Music, Philadelphia, September 1971. Photographer: Adrian Siegel.

Ensemble ACJW @ Le Poisson Rouge

IN its modest, underground way a concert that the young musicians of the Ensemble ACJW gave on a brisk night in December at Le Poisson Rouge, the Greenwich Village club for all kinds of contemporary music, was one of the most liberating programs I have heard in years.

The excellent players, participants of the Academy (the select training institute for post-graduate musicians run jointly by the Juilliard School, Carnegie Hall and the Weill Music Institute), impishly titled the program “ACJW Gets Extreme: The Mix Tape.” The idea was to present substantive contemporary music with the trappings of a rock band’s release party.

Though the performances were brilliant, it was the irreverent mixing of works that excited me. The players leapt from the experimental modernist Stockhausen’s “Zodiac” to an elusive, rock-infused new chamber work, “Bow to String,” by Daniel Bjarnason, a trendy young Icelandic composer; from “Semi-Simple Variations,” a spiky 12-tone piano piece by Milton Babbitt, to “Synchronisms No. 9” for violin and electronics by Mario Davidovsky. And so on. Categories be damned.

Read the full article in The New York Times here.