Slow moments with SW: Samuel Barber, infinite sadness.

Samuel Barber
Samuel Barber – oh yes, you are thinking, he wrote that Adagio didn’t he. And you would be right, he did, and it has become the work of choice to play to mark solemn occasions and commemorations. And because we all know it, it’ll not feature in this little post. Instead we’ll explore some of the possibly lesser-known, yet delightful, corners of Barber’s output (I, for one, certainly can’t pretend to know a great deal of his work…shame on me). So let’s see what we can find.

Barber’s musical style was firmly rooted in the post-romantic tonal language and forms of the late nineteenth century, often infused with an intense lyrical wistfulness and in marked contrast to that, say, of Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions or John Cage working in far more experimental idioms. Indeed, in a radio interview in September 1978 Barber said that he wrote “as he wished and without a tremendous desire to find the latest thing possible.”

Let’s begin with the Cello sonata’s Adagio…this is perhaps cheating rather as it has a decidedly presto middle section, but the soaring melody which enfolds it is too good to miss. Interestingly, it seems that these adagio sections were added as something of an afterthought – the MS of the cello part has them added at the bottom of the page with “vide scherzo” written after the first (i.e. now go to the scherzo). Written in 1932, and, as the liner notes to my recording say: “…this youthful work, fresh and direct, with moments of inventive sparkle nestling close to longlined tonal melodies is redolent of the influence of Brahms.” Brahms’ music was greatly admired by Barber and comparisons have been drawn between the openings of the Brahms F major sonata and the Barber, and having listened to them side by side, I see what is meant. Here is Guy Johnston – the movement begins at about 7′ 40″ into the recording:

Barber had a particular fascination for the association of words and music and his songs are an elegant demonstration of this: think Dover Beach (composed in 1931) and Knoxville: summer of 1915 (composed in 1947). Far too much to choose from, but my choice for this little blog post comes from his Hermit Songs, settings of anonymous poems written by Irish monks and scholars from the 8th– 13thcenturies. At a mere 2 minutes and 14 (ish) seconds The Monk and His Cat is actually one of the longest of the collection! But what fun. The original text was translated by W. H. Auden and is a charming vignette depicting a monk chatting to his cat, Pangur, about their daily lives:

“…Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me, study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice when your claws entrap a mouse;
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art
Neither hinders the other…”

Now to something light years away in character – the mezzo aria “Must the winter come so soon?” from Barber’s opera Vanessa sung by Erika, Vanessa’s niece and probably the best-known aria from the work. The plot is an unbearable – dare one say even Gothic – tale of mistaken identity, delusion, seduction and loss created by Gian Carlo Menotti for Barber. The aria comes at an early point in the work – Act I, Scene I. In fact, it nearly didn’t get into the work at all! Had it not been for Rosalind Elias – who was to sing Erika – complaining (in the nicest possible way) to Barber that she had no aria in the opera. In response, he composed what has become its best-known extract and a firm favourite with mezzos. But I feel I should issue a health warning: listen with care, it is haunting in the extreme…this is Katherine Ciesinski as Erika in an excerpt from the Spoleto Festival production:

Next one of my favourite Barber compositions: the Violin Concerto, Op. 14. The gestation of the Concerto and its eventual premiere are a complex tale of competing interests between commissioner, the intended performer, world events and Barber himself. The work was originally intended for violinist Iso Briselli whom Barber knew whilst at the Curtis Institute of Music. Briselli’s sponsor, industrialist Samuel Fels, commissioned Barber to compose a concerto for Briselli which would showcase his talents and, after much debate and deliberation, work started. So far, so good, but it all went terribly wrong when Briselli’s violin teacher Albert Meiff decided the work was way off the mark of that which a “modern violinist” might expect and went so far as to suggest that he, Meiff, should re-write the solo part (can you imagine what Beethoven might have said should that have happened to him?!). In short, the result was something of a stand-off: in the end, Briselli didn’t give the premiere, that fell to Albert Spalding in February 1942 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. The Andante slow movement is deeply intense, infused as is so much Barber, with a searing sense of loss and longing yet also a sublime serenity – note especially the moment when the solo violin takes up the oboe’s opening melody. I defy you not to hold your breath! This is James Ehnes:

And, because we are in Cambridge, with its annual “singing on the river” concerts let’s end with Barber’s 1968 setting of Louise Bogan’s To be sung on the water, Op. 42 no. 2. Not perhaps slow, but gently lilting, evoking a sense of the motion of the water under the boat. “Beautiful, my delight” it is indeed.

…and finally, I am indebted to a friend for the subtitle of this post – “infinite sadness” so precisely captures the overarching mood.


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