Music by Samuel Barber. Libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti
Samuel Barber always knew he wanted to be a composer, though he suspected very early that it was not the most respectable of professions. At the age of nine, he wrote in great distress to his mother:
Dear Mother: I have written this to tell you my worrying secret. Now don't cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now without any nonsense. To begin with I was not meant to be an athlet [sic]. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I'm sure. I'll ask you one more thing . – Don't ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football. – Please – Sometimes I've been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very).
Young Samuel had reasonable grounds for his concern: His aunt Louise had married a composer, Sidney Homer, exciting consternation among the family lest he be unable to support a wife. But by the time Samuel was considering his own future, Louise had been singing at the Metropolitan Opera for two decades, and Uncle Sidney had become a loving mentor for young Samuel.
At the age of 14 Barber entered the Curtis Institute, where he studied voice, piano, and composition and met Gian Carlo Menotti, who would be his life partner and artistic collaborator, supplying libretti for Barber's operas Vanessa and A Hand of Bridge.
Barber quickly became a very successful composer. While still in his twenties he wrote the iconic piece for which he is best known, the Adagio for Strings. It was originally the second movement of his String Quartet, op. 11, but Barber arranged it for orchestra and sent it to the great Arturo Toscanini, who broadcast the premiere to a radio audience of millions . . . a real coup for a young composer.
The piece was an immediate hit and has become an unofficial American anthem of mourning – played at the announcement of Franklin D. Roosevelt's death, and at the funerals of Albert Einstein, Princess Grace, and Leonard Bernstein. It has also firmly embedded itself in popular American culture. It's heard in the movies Platoon, The Elephant Man, and Lorenzo's Oil, on Michael Moore's documentary Sicko, and in video game soundtracks. It's been arranged, covered, synthesized, sampled, and remixed; it pops up in genres such as disco, rap and trance. It's been featured on episodes of Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and South Park – surely no further proof is needed that it is part of our cultural fabric!
None of this takes away from the fact that the Adagio is a riveting piece, stunning in its utter simplicity; but it tends to overshadow Barber's many other masterpieces, including sonatas and concerti for cello, for piano, and for violin, ballets, choral and orchestral works, works for solo piano, as well as three operas and numerous vocal works.
Many of Barber's compositions were commissioned or premiered by such famous artists as Vladimir Horowitz, Eleanor Steber, Jennie Tourel, Leontyne Price, Francis Poulenc, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Martha Graham, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Serge Koussevitzky and of course, Arturo Toscanini.
A contemporary of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, Barber was, like them, at the heart of mid-century American artistic life. Menotti recalled the string of luminaries who visited Capricorn, the home he shared with Barber in New York:
I remember wonderful evenings with Vladimir Horowitz, Martha Graham, Marcel Duchamp, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Jerome Robbins, Tallulah Bankhead. I can't begin to recall all the famous people who were part of those years.
Along with George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber ranks as one of the most important American composers of the 20th century. In a century of atonality, serialism and other waves of musical fashion, Barber went his own neo-Romantic way, incorporating modern techniques if they suited the music, but staying true to himself with his lyrical, dramatic, wonderfully accessible music.
His editor Paul Wittke called Barber a maverick romantic lyricist in a turbulent age and said of him that he demanded very little – only intelligence and perfection.
Not every great opera composer has found himself equally at home in the more intimate world of song. And vice versa: the operas of Schubert and Schumann have never found a place in the permanent repertoire, while the songs of Verdi, Puccini, and the bel canto composers are only rarely heard on the recital platform.
Responsiveness to the nuances of poetic text is not always compatible with an instinct for the telling theatrical gesture (a small number of Mozart's Lieder are masterpieces, but he turned to this genre infrequently).
From the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth, however, we find many composers contributing significantly to both genres: Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc; Berg, Korngold, Bartók, Falla; above all Richard Strauss and Benjamin Britten, who are not only masterful but prolific in both. To this list of names we must add that of Samuel Barber, whose songs have long been universally well-loved and whose operas are just now beginning to assume the position they have always merited.
For his opera libretti, Barber relied on the collaboration of his personal and professional partner, Gian-Carlo Menotti (himself an opera composer of significant success and distinction). But in choosing texts for his songs, the composer was remarkably far-reaching, perceptive, and (an old-fashioned but nonetheless accurate word) tasteful.
The first requirement for a composer of song in any language may be a love of poetry, but surely the second is an instinctive drive to convey a deeply personal response to – or interpretation of – the poem through the medium of music. (The tradition of art song – Lied, mélodie – has always meant the musical setting of a pre-existing text; throughout the middle ages and Renaissance it was common for composers to write their own lyrics, but this is almost nonexistent in nineteenth and twentieth-century song.) The response may be to the poem's meaning or story (if it has one) or to the images it evokes or even the sonority of its vowels and consonants. The song that results is not a poem any longer, but neither is it really a piece of music: this fusion of text and music is its own art form (although it must be said that the contribution of the composer is the paramount one: examples abound of successful settings of mediocre poems, but no poem, however great, makes the transition to song without inspired music).
Samuel Barber had two great advantages from the beginning: first, he was a singer; his aunt, Louise Homer, was a leading operatic contralto (who even premiered her nephew's earliest song) and as a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Barber took voice lessons alongside his studies in piano and composition. (Later in life, during the annual Christmas gathering he hosted at his home outside New York City, Barber would entertain his guests by accompanying himself as he sang Irish ballads and other sentimental songs.) Second, he was never, throughout his life, without a volume or two of poetry at his bedside. In a 1978 radio interview the composer discussed the role poetry played in his work:
The text means a great deal to me. I read tons and tons of poetry anyway, so I go through tons and tons of poems that could possibly be songs. It's very hard to find them . . . They are either too wordy or they are too introverted . . . It's hard for me to enjoy poetry per se, as I always have in the back of my mind the feeling that I may come across a usable song text. I tend to mark things when I read a promising poem for the first time, and then go back and try to appreciate it simply as poetry. However, I do enjoy reading contemporary poetry, not only in English, but in German and French, and I've made a real study of Dante and Goethe in their original language.
Although Barber was at home in many languages, the only songs for which he used poems in a foreign language are the Mélodies passagères (Rainer Maria Rilke). Setting French to music is ticklish. The French are very, very particular about it. Barber's success in this language can be attested to by the fact that the cycle was given its first performance by Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc – and in Paris.
Barber had a life-long passion for Celtic poetry: James Stephens, William Butler Yeats, and perhaps most importantly, James Joyce. These poets feature in many of the composer's earliest songs, strikingly in the Three Songs, Op. 10 (1935-36) which are all settings of Joyce poems. Later, in 1947, this poet is encountered again in "Nuvoletta," adapted from the "Mookse and Gripes" section of Finnegans Wake. It is one of Barber's more complex songs – appropriately for this text – and he even uncharacteristically quotes Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. One of Barber's earliest masterpieces – one he remained proud of throughout his life – is a setting for baritone and string quartet of Matthew Arnold's melancholic poem Dover Beach. Discussing this text when he was 70, Barber said, It's extremely pessimistic – the emotions seem contemporary. Dover Beach is one of the few Victorian poems which continues to hold its stature; it is a great poem, in fact. And a great song: when Barber played it for Ralph Vaughan Williams shortly after completing the final version, the older composer was enthusiastic: "I tried several times to set Dover Beach, but you really got it."
Barber's taste in poetry could be eclectic: the Hermit Songs of 1952-53 (premiered by Leontyne Price with the composer at the piano) are settings of poems by anonymous Irish monks and scholars of the 8th to 13th centuries, translated by, among others, W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman. Robin Flower wrote about them in The Irish Tradition:
They are small poems, thoughts or observations, some very short, and speak in straightforward, witty, and often surprisingly modern terms of the simple life they led – close to nature, their animals and to God. Some are literal translations and others, were translated (where existing translations seemed inadequate.) 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.
During Barber's middle and late years he set many texts by English and American poets, none more poignantly than James Agee. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a musical setting of an excerpt from Agee's story Knoxville, set in the American south during the summer before the death of the poet's father. Barber described this work (for soprano – or tenor – and orchestra) as a Rhapsody (a relatively free form, characterized by contrasting sections, which suits the narrative exactly). The opening lines establish an atmosphere which is captured beautifully by Barber's music:
We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child. It was a little bit mixed sort of block, fairly solidly lower middle class, with one or two juts apiece on either side of that. The houses corresponded: middlesized gracefully fretted wood houses built in the late nineties and early nineteen hundreds, with small front and side and more spacious back yards, and trees in the yards.
Knoxville: Summer of 1915 was premiered in 1948 by Eleanor Steber, with Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Although critical reception was mixed, this became – and remains – one of Barber's best-loved and most frequently performed scores. Of all his single songs, it is another setting of Agee, Sure on this shining night, that is equally esteemed and frequently heard in recital.
One of Barber's most ardent champions, the great American pianist John Browning, wrote about the composer's highly personal style, one which employed 20th-century techniques only as devices to enhance his art, not as the rigid methods he felt were restrictive. Browning describes Barber's language as that of the poet – swift changes of mood and a pervading melancholy and loneliness conveyed on a sumptuous harmonic tapestry . . . by the age of 30, [Barber] possessed a musical knowledge so comprehensive and a craft so well-honed that there were virtually no colors, textures, or forms beyond his ability. Certainly this mastery is apparent in Barber's last collection of songs, written in 1972 for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, on poems by James Joyce, Christopher Middleton, and Czeslaw Milosz. There is an overlay of chromaticism and dissonance in these songs that reflect the poems with great immediacy. Asked in an interview if poetry had ever dictated a change, however slight, in his musical style, Barber responded, I think that's happened a little, but when it did it would only last for one poem. This ability to respond so personally and deeply to a poem – part instinct, part mastery – is characteristic of Barber's songs throughout his life.
Throughout his life as well, Barber was somewhat conscious of a tendency on the part of the academic musical establishment to dismiss him as an anachronism; the perceived Romanticism of his scores was not considered valid for a composer of the twentieth century. Barber himself, late in life, put it very simply:
I think that what's been holding composers back a great deal is that they feel they music have a new style every year. That, in my case, would be hopeless . . . I just go on, as they say, doing my own thing. I believe this takes a certain courage.
Critic John Simon, who considers Barber a genuinely great American composer (and who rates his music higher than Copland's) suggested that it did, indeed, take a certain courage, especially if 'my thing' was some of the most unfashionably romantic, songful yet classically restrained music ever written.