Rescue of a one-hit wonder

Samuel Barber (1910-1981): his distrust of the avant-garde, combined with his waspish tongue and fondness for bitchy one-liners, may have conspired to keep him in the musical outback. Photograph: Gordon Parks/Time Life Pictures/Getty

Samuel Barber (1910-1981): his distrust of the avant-garde, combined with his waspish tongue and fondness for bitchy one-liners, may have conspired to keep him in the musical outback. Photograph: Gordon Parks/Time Life Pictures/Getty

 

There’s more to Samuel Barber than a mournful Adagio for Strings, and his centenary should help restore an unfairly languishing reputation, writes ARMINTA WALLACE

SAY “Samuel Barber” to the average, reasonably well-informed music lover, and the chances are they’ll reply, “Adagio for Strings”. This 10-minute slice of musical misery seems to have turned itself into Barber’s Greatest Hit – if not Barber’s Only Hit. With its ability to wipe smiles from faces instantly and replace them with lugubrious expressions (and even the occasional tear), it also seems to have become a form of musical shorthand, a signal of right-thinking cultural distress. It was played at Einstein’s funeral, for example, and at the last night of the Proms in 2001 to commemorate the victims of the September 11th attacks. It has turned up at weepy moments in films, among them Oliver Stone’s Platoonand David Lynch’s The Elephant Man.

Even when revamped as an Ibiza-style dance track by electro-meister William Orbit, or as an unaccompanied vocal by the Celtic Tenors, it manages to keep its melancholy intact.

There is, however, a great deal more to Barber than those mournful descending motifs. With any luck this should become apparent over the coming 12 months as the music world celebrates the centenary of the composer’s birth. The celebration is being marked with particular thoroughness in Ireland, perhaps because Barber – who had Irish blood on his mother’s side – was proud of his Irish roots and made use of poems by Joyce, Yeats and James Stephens alongside those of WH Auden, Robert Graves and Rilke among his many song settings for piano and voice.

He was born Samuel Osborne Barber II in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His father was a doctor, his mother a talented pianist. He grew up in a comfortable, cultured milieu: his aunt was a leading contralto at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and his uncle was a successful composer of American art songs.

Young Samuel must have been a precocious child. At the age of nine he penned a missive to his mother (see right) to confide his “worrying secret”, that he meant to be a composer rather than an athlete. What mother could resist? Not Mrs Barber. By the time he was 14 Samuel was enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

The “worrying secret” may, however, have been more poignant than just an ambition to become a composer. Within four years a new student had arrived at the institute, a young Italian by the name of Gian-Carlo Menotti. He was to be the love of Barber’s life. Their partnership, both musical and emotional, lasted for many years before it finally broke up in the late 1960s.

Has Barber’s music been neglected because he was gay? It’s unlikely. If his work has generally fallen out of favour, it probably has more to do with his steadfast refusal to experiment with serialism or atonality. Instead he followed his own, resolutely melodic musical path. During his lifetime this earned him some plaudits, including two Pulitzer prizes (one for his piano sonata and one for his opera, Vanessa), but his distrust of the avant-garde, combined with his waspish tongue and fondness for bitchy one-liners, may have conspired to keep him in the musical outback.

He was also a man who could, without hesitation, bite the hand that was supposed to be feeding him. While Barber was still a student at the Curtis Institute, soap tycoon Samuel Fels offered him a commission to write a piece for his adopted son, a violinist and fellow student called Iso Briselli. Barber took an advance and went off to Switzerland to write the first two movements of what would be his 1939 violin concerto. When Briselli complained that they were too simple, Barber retaliated with a ferociously difficult finale, which was rejected on the grounds that it didn’t suit the rest of the piece.

Fels demanded his money back, and Barber told him to take a hike. The piece might never have seen the light of day had it not been for the intervention of another fellow student, who performed the piece after just a few hours of preparation, thereby proving it playable. The concerto has turned out to be a favourite with violin virtuosos, and the 20-year-old Russian, Eugene Ugorski, will kick off the Barber centenary in Ireland when he performs it tomorrow with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall.

Any re-evaluation of Barber as a composer, however, must surely begin with his vocal works – which, one commentator claims, “make a powerful case for Barber as one of the 20th century’s most accomplished songwriters”.

The best-known of these are his settings for voice and orchestra of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beachand James Agee’s autobiographical fragment, Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Superficially, these works make an odd couple, Arnold’s nightmare vision of the world as “a darkling plain . . . where ignorant armies clash by night” and Agee’s dreamy evocation of a child falling asleep outdoors on a summer evening, his family’s conversation mingling with the sound of crickets and passing cars. Taken together, however, they show Barber’s mastery of the art of timeless yearning. Composed when he was just 21, the setting of Dover Beachis, quite simply, perfect. His lilting accompaniment to Knoxville, meanwhile, has arguably given this nostalgic scrap a shot at immortality. “Agee’s words and Barber’s music are so sturdily wedded,” writes one critic, “that it is difficult to separate them.”

Barber’s extraordinary facility for melody is shown to great effect on the 1994 Deutsche Grammophon recording of his songs by baritone Thomas Hampson, soprano Cheryl Studer and pianist John Browning. Whether he is setting a poem by Czeslaw Milosz, as in the mischievous A Green Lowland of Pianos, or pieces of text by medieval Celtic mystics, as in Hermit Songs, his flawless instinct for narrative line and his natural sense of counterpoint – aided, apparently, by a lifelong love of Bach’s music – are everywhere in evidence.

Whether this year’s revivals of these charming pieces will be enough to rescue Barber from one-hit wonderland remains to be seen. But no matter how joyous the celebrations of his birth turn out to be, there is no denying that he came to rather a sad end.

After a critical panning of his opera, Antony and Cleopatra, in 1966 Barber fell into a deepening depression which led, eventually, to the break-up of his relationship with Menotti and the sale of their beloved house, Capricorn, in the hills of upstate New York. Despite his dislike of city life he died in the Big Apple, of cancer, aged 71.

Barber has always had staunch supporters. His friend and former editor, Paul Wittke, points out in an essay on the Schirmer music publishing company’s website (schirmer.com) that “no one ever denied his polished style, or his integrity, nor did they resent his honesty in admitting he wanted to reach a large musical audience”.

But it is Barber who sums himself up best. In a letter sent 10 years before his death – a kind of parallel to that letter written to his mother in the first decade of his life – he writes: “I think what’s been holding composers back a great deal is that they feel they must have a new style every year. This, in my case, would be hopeless . . . I just go on doing, as they say, my thing. I believe this takes a certain courage.”

A Samuel Barber septet: seven centenary concerts

Violin concerto

Fiendishly difficult fiddling will doubtless come easy to wunderkind Russian violinist Eugene Ugorski,who has been compared to David Oistrakh. He plays Barber’s concerto with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall tomorrow at 8pm.

Birthday concert

Barber’s piece for voice and string quartet, Dover Beach, is on the menu at the NCH, as is his first string quartet (shh, don’t mention the Adagio), when the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet is joined by baritone Brian Mulligan and soprano Roberta Alexander on the date of the composer’s birthday, March 9th. The programme also features the piano sonata, played by Lilia Boyadjieva, and the delicious Hermit Songs, while Barber biographer Barbara Heyman will give a pre-concert talk at 6.30pm. Samuel Barber: Echoes of Irelandis at the NCH on Tuesday, March 9th at 8pm.

London calling

Pianist Chiao-Ying Chang, violinist Sulki Yu, the Solstice String Quartet and baritone David Butt are among the performers at the Wigmore Hall’s Samuel Barber Centenary Concertin London on March 15th at 7.30pm. They’ll be doing Dover Beach, the piano sonata, the violin sonata, Souvenirs (piano music for four hands) and the string quartet.

Knoxville 2010

It’s not the main item on the agenda by any means, but Barber’s rhapsodic Knoxville: Summer of 1915 will be touring Ireland with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and soprano Mairead Buicke(pictured below). Its first outing will be at the NCH on March 19th, followed by performances in Galway (March 23rd), Limerick (24th) and Waterford (26th).

God bless America?

Philip Martin is the soloist in Barber’s piano concerto, alongside the European premiere of Andre Previn’s piece, Owls, plus Hindemith’s plangent setting of Walt Whitman’s poem about the funeral cortege of Abraham Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.The concert, with baritone Owen Gilhooly, the RTÉ Philharmonic and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by William Eddins, will take place at the NCH on Friday, April 30th at 8pm.

Baritone Barber

It’s not Strictly Ballroom,perhaps, but when American baritone Thomas Hampsoncomes to town, he’ll almost certainly include some of Barber’s Irish song settings in his recital of songs by American composers, at the NCH on Sunday, May 30th.

Youth power times two

The Irish Youth Choir will join forces, for the first time, with the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland for three concerts featuring Barber’s Prayers of Kierkegaard, at West Cork Chamber Music Festival (Friday, July 2nd), Wexford Opera House (Saturday, 3rd); and the NCH (Sunday, 4th).

‘My worrying secret’: a letter to ‘Mother’

When he was just nine years old, Samuel Barber wrote to his mother: “Dear Mother: I have written 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 athlete. 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).”