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EXPLORING MUSIC :''Beautifully Recorded'' Samuel Barber

The MHS Review 395 Vol. 11 No. 17, 1987

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David M. Greene


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I was forbidden in my youth to pursue a musical career, on the grounds that for­tune eluded people who did, and fame came too late (if at all) to do them any good. My parents did not know about Samuel Barber.

If ever American music had a fair-haired boy it was Sam Barber. Barber, who was only 10 years older than I, may not have been born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, but it was at the very least top-quality Sheffield plate. His parents were cultured, intelligent people who in­dulged his musical bent. His maternal aunt was the great American contralto Louise Homer. Her husband was Sidney Homer, an admired writer of superior salon songs.

Uncle Sid kept tabs on Sam's musical pro­gress; at age 12, the youngster asked him seriously if he would be ill-advised to con­sider music as a career. Not only did Homer not think so; he applied the screws to the parents with the result that Sam was ad­mitted on the ground floor, so to speak, of the newly founded Curtis Institute. He was then 14. Before he graduated Colum­bia University had awarded two Beams Prizes to compositions of his, and RCA Vic­tor had recorded him (on a Red Seal Record, with the Curtis String Quartet) singing his own setting of Matthew Ar­nold's "Dover Beach."

In 1935 he won the American Prix de Rome, in which city he wrote his first sym­phony. Three years later Arturo Toscanini conducted the first Essay for orchestra and the now-ubiquitous Adagio for strings (ac­tually the slow movement of Barber's on­ly string quartet). During World War II he served in the Army Air Corps as a sort of composer-laureate, and wrote, at its com­mand, his Second Symphony, which the government broadcast to the entire free world. (Later Barber disowned the work.)

In 1957 Rudolf Bing produced Barber's first opera, Vanessa, kept it in the Metropolitan repertoire the following season, and revived it a few years later. It was recorded, became the first American opera ever seen at the Salzburg Festival, and was ultimately telecast nationwide on PBS (or whatever that network was then called).

In 1966 Barber was chosen to open the Metropolitan's new house at Lincoln Center with a second opera, Antony and Cleopatra. Franco Zeffirelli, who also stag­ed it, adapted the libretto from Shakespeare, and the first performance was the subject of a much-touted nationwide broadcast.

Unfortunately the work suffered from Zeffirelli's overweening production and from the recalcitrance of the Met's com­plex stage apparatus, and was regarded as a failure. It is said that Barber was crush­ed. After that, though the honors con­tinued to roll in, his output fell to a mere trickle, and virtually stopped after 1974. He died of cancer early in 1981.

Vanessa brought him a Pulitzer Prize in 1958; four years later he won a second one for this very Piano Concerto (his only one). It had been commissioned by the house of G. Schirmer, Inc., Barber's publisher from the outset, to celebrate its hundredth an­niversary (also 1966). Twenty years earlier I labored in various outposts of that then­extensive empire--the Juilliard School, Newark, Brooklyn, and the main store a block from Grand Central Station. In the last I literally used to bump into Barber, a tall, quiet man, among the vocal music files, but I don't think we ever spoke to each other.

The Concerto was first played by John Browning (with Leinsdorf) and was an im­mediate international success. Browning and Szell immediately recorded it. Abbott Ruskin and David Epstein did so a decade later, but curiously these have remained the only versions in the catalog. Recently Tedd Joselson and Andrew Schenck have created a stir with their performances of the piece, which have been memorialized on this beautifully recorded record.

Shortly after he was mustered out of the service, Barber wrote, on the Medea story, a ballet for Martha Graham, presented as The Serpent Heart. Dissatisfied with the music, he revised it as Cave of the Heart in 1947. From it he drew an orchestral suite, Medea (1948). Finally in 1955 he condensed this material into the single­-movement tone poem that we have here.

Review of Samuel Barber Piano Concerto, Op. 38; Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23a

Adagio for Strings Page 63

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