It is one of the enduring ironies of classical music that so much of today’s repertoire was written by such a small number of people. This post is the thirteenth in a multipart Arts Fuse series dedicated to reevaluating neglected and overlooked orchestral music. Comments and suggestions are welcome at the bottom of the page or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Say what you will about Samuel Barber, but he knew what he wanted, writing – aged nine! – to his mother that “I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure.”
Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1910, Barber wasted no time realizing that ambition. His compositional career spanned more than sixty years, beginning with small piano pieces in 1917 and ending with the Third Essay in 1978 (written for Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic). His output could be uneven – the last Essay, for instance, is an empty shell when compared to the first two – and he suffered his share of musical setbacks (most notoriously the debacle that was the premiere of the opera Antony and Cleopatra in 1966). But to look over Barber’s complete output is to be astonished by its sheer breadth and, above all, quality: here was an American composer who, after the manner of Haydn and Beethoven and Brahms, was a bona fide craftsman.
You see this in the extraordinary (and underrated) Symphony no. 1, which reconceives the four-movement model of the Classical symphony as a through-composed entity, culminating in a stern, dizzying Passacaglia. It’s there again in the Capricorn Concerto, a witty reinvention of the Baroque concerto grosso, as well as the brilliant Piano Sonata, the ballet Medea, and the opera Vanessa. Even the evergreen Adagio for Strings boasts a structure that wrenches as much drama and intensity out of its simple, repetitive main motive as is possible.
More than being an exacting technician, Barber was also a great melodist. What other 20th-century American composer might have written his Violin Concerto? Or Souvenirs? Or Barber’s dozens of songs, from Dover Beach to Knoxville: Summer of 1915 to the Hermit Songs to The Lovers? Certainly not Copland, Bernstein, Schuman, Kirchner, Gould, Carter…anyone of his generation (or since), really. No, Barber’s voice and outlook, his technique, his sentimentality (I mean this in a good way), his understanding of the musical line and expression: all of this fed into one of the most individual and distinguished voices to emerge in Europe or America during the 20th century.
Remarkably, though, for all the audience appeal of his music (and it has a lot going for it, from tunes to a diatonic harmonic palette), Barber’s orchestral reputation hangs on the threads of just a few pieces like the Adagio for Strings and the Violin Concerto. Where have the symphonies and Essays, the School for Scandal overture, the Toccata Festiva all gone?
Some of them are still around, to be sure (the Boston Symphony trotted out the Toccata just this past January). But it’s a sad truth that, for better or worse, some of Barber’s most substantial orchestral music simply never caught on. He was, after all, kind of an odd-man-out during his lifetime: not exactly a populist in the ‘30s, not at all involved with the cutting-edge avant-garde of the post-World War 2 era, Barber was simply an entity unto himself, writing music that often was great but out of step, stylistically, with the times.
You’d like to think that by now, 107 years after his birth and after the demises of the of the late-20th century’s loudest tribalists (looking at you, Pierre Boulez), the time would be ripe for a Barber revival. Maybe it is. Barber’s champions – Leonard Slatkin and Marin Alsop are two of the best and most ardent – regularly proselytize for him and some of the day’s greatest performers, from Hilary Hahn to Dawn Upshaw, have committed his big works to disc, often very well.
But there’s always more advocacy to be done.
For my money, the work that best conveys the brilliance, charisma, energy, invention, big-heartedness, and sheer spectacle of Barber is his Piano Concerto. It’s an extraordinary piece, hot-headed, dramatic, sometimes exquisitely lovely, thoroughly exciting. And it has always been well-regarded, critically, winning the 1963 Pulitzer Prize in music (Barber’s second). It’s also incredibly difficult to play, having only been recorded a handful of times, most impressively (and twice) by its dedicatee, John Browning.
The Concerto’s first movement is pure Barber – that is to say, American Romantic. It opens with a big piano cadenza that introduces three themes – “the first declamatory, the second and third rhythmic,” was how Barber described them – before the orchestra enters with the movement’s main melody, a searching, brooding tune that pushes all before it.
Throughout this movement, piano and orchestra are essentially antagonists, bouncing off one another, rarely sharing material. There’s a lengthy orchestral statement after the initial solo cadenza, filled with hard-driving counterpoint and the lyrical writing that Barber did so well. After this, piano and orchestra are heard together in a rather brief, scherzando dialogue, before another, longer orchestral interlude occurs, this one led by the oboe introducing the movement’s second theme.
A rather symphonic development ensues – think of it as Brahms meeting the mid-20th century – and builds to the cadenza which, at only two pages, is rather on the short side. But it doesn’t skimp on challenges: fistfuls of notes, exhaustive range, and a mighty serving of musical drama. After this, the music proceeds through a rather standard recapitulation and wraps up in a furious, rhythmic coda.
While the first movement burned hot, the second, “Canzone,” is of a completely opposite character: serene, delicate, rarely raising its voice. It also demonstrates Barber’s crafty technical skill – the opening melody and its accompaniment consist of the same four notes, just stretched out a bit in the tune.
And that haunting theme, first heard played by a low solo flute, is the prime mover of the movement. Nearly everything going on, foreground and background, is derived from it. It’s passed between soloist and orchestra, varied and embellished as it goes, but is always recognizable. Eventually a short, related second theme turns up – it’s first heard being gently tossed between solo piano and solo oboe and flute, respectively – to offer some contrast, but the mood of the music never really changes.
The middle movement’s peace and repose are swept away by the opening of the finale: here we’re returned to the first movement’s turbulent mood, and with the energy level ratcheted up considerably, to boot.
This barreling movement is something of a rondo – there’s a recurring ostinato that drives much of it – that rarely lets up in intensity or energy. After a quick, introductory refrain, we’re introduced to the ostinato, a nervous, repetitive figure in 5/8. It’s interrupted but twice, first by a slightly relaxed, slightly odd chromatic gesture; then by a cheeky scalar figure. In between there are intimations of everything from Tchaikovsky to jazz. It all builds to a ferocious climax and, at the end, simply hurtles over the edge.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.