SAMUEL OSBORNE BARBER
His symphonic catalogue abounds in exquisitely crafted, yet deeply emotive, works, among them the lyrical 1933 MUSIC FOR A SCENE FROM SHELLY, Symphony No. 1 (1936), the ADAGIO FOR STRINGS (1938), and his CELLO CONCERTO, OPUS 22 (1945), to name but a few. His works for the stage include the Martha Graham ballet, MEDEA, the chamber opera A HAND OF BRIDGE, and his two full scale operas, VANESSA (1958) and ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA (1966). Despite the fact that the Shakespeare work which opened the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center was subjected to critical scorn, its failure was due less to Barber and far more to the overblown technical disaster created by stage designer Franco Zefferelli. Though a revised version presented by the Juilliard School in 1975 and a recent production by the Chicago Lyric Opera have gone a long way in reappraising Barber's score, the composer himself, devastated by the initial response, never fully recovered from the depression that followed. In addition to his symphonic compositions, Barber showed a particular flair in writing for both the piano and the voice. From the Brahmsian lyricism of his INTERLUDE NO.1, composed in his Curtis days and premiered only fifty years later by John Browning, to the virtuosic, passionate, and compelling PIANO SONATA, OPUS 26, to the Pulitzer Prize winning PIANO CONCERTO, OPUS 38, Barber has made landmark contributions to the keyboard repertoire.
One of 20th
Century's Most Accomplished
But perhaps it is as a songwriter that Barber is at his most Romantic and impassioned. A fine
baritone himself, Barber's love of poetry and his intimate knowledge and appreciation of the human
voice inspired all his vocal writing. John Browning asserts that throughout Barber's life, the
composer was never without a volume or two of poetry at his bedside. Poetry was, Browning believes,
as necessary to his existence as oxygen. In his impeccable choice of song texts, Barber was drawn to
a wide variety of contemporary writers, prominent among them the Georgian School, the Irish bards,
and the French Symbolists, who were, in fact, intimately connected with the linguistic experiments
of the 20th century Irish master, James Joyce, as well as to contemporary American voices like
James Agee. The complete edition of the songs recorded for
Deutsche Grammophon by Thomas Hampson, Cheryl Studer, John Browning, and the Emerson String
Quartet in 1992 not only revealed the range of Barber's vocal inspiration, but it offered ten
previously unpublished (and subsequently issued) songs. These piano-vocal compositions, when
taken together with Barber's two song settings for orchestra, KNOXVILLE SUMMER 1915 to words
by James Agee and DOVER BEACH to a Victorian text by Matthew Arnold, make a powerful case for
Barber as one of the twentieth century's most accomplished songwriters.
Listen to the song, "Sure On This Shining Night" in the Songbook
While he sometimes dismissed his youthful works, Barber retained a special fondness for DOVER BEACH
(1931)--perhaps because he had performed it often, himself, and had recorded it in 1935, but more
likely because he found in it and in Arnold's poem of pessimism and stoic despair a renewed meaning.
Almost fifty years later when the composer was seventy, he remarked on the maturity of his
inspiration in DOVER BEACH and the timelessness of Arnold's text, saying that the emotions seem
Especially in his last decade after the initial failure of ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, Barber had reason to feel his works neglected and his mission misunderstood.
Composing became increasingly difficult for
him, though he battled on, producing a trickle of important works, among them a piano BALLADE,
LOVERS for baritone, chorus, and orchestra, the THIRD ESSAY FOR ORCHESTRA, and the late songs
OPUS 41 and OPUS 45, and he continued to confront his creative destiny with the same outward
stoicism so poignantly reflected in Arnold's poem. That he never lived, as John Browning laments,
to see the current revival of tonalism and lyricism among those young composers who, having
found serialism a cul-de-sac, now regard Barber as their prophet is, of course, a great tragedy.
And yet, each year, as Barber's compositions find new audiences and his reputation as one of the
most important 20th century composers continues to grow, one may be permitted to imagine that
Arnold's tremulous cadence of sadness with its impassioned counter-plea, "Ah love let us be
true/To one another!" has found an enduring answer in Samuel Barber's stubborn, loving, faithful
enduring commitment to a Muse and to a vision that were painfully, but inspiringly prescient.