Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Avoiding ‘triteness and false brilliance’

2010 marks the centenary of the birth of Samuel Barber. At the age of nine he told his mother ‘I was not meant to be an athlete – I was meant to be a composer.’ Apart from a dip in popularity in the turbulent 1960s, his music has always enjoyed widespread popularity: his Adagio for Strings appears in television documentaries, films and near the top of radio stations’ lists of ‘all time favourites of classical music’.

To commemorate the centenary, the University of Rochester Press will publish Peter Dickinson’s
Samuel Barber Remembered featuring interviews with Barber's friends, fellow composers, and performers, notably Gian Carlo Menotti, Aaron Copland, William Schuman, Virgil Thomson, soprano Leontyne Price, and pianist John Browning. Based on a BBC Radio 3 programme first broadcast in 1981, the book also includes three of the very few interviews extant with Barber himself.

We begin a series of extracts from this fascinating book with a short piece, looking at Barber’s early reception in England.

The prolific American writer David Ewen, writing for a British public in the Musical Times in 1939, found Roy Harris “the most significant” among American composers but continued: “Samuel Barber promises to become the most important discovery since Harris.” Ewen heard Barber’s First Symphony at the Salzburg Festival in 1937 where it was followed by an ovation. He went on prophetically in terms rarely used by any British writer then or later: “Samuel Barber’s facility in self-expression, his extraordinary gift in formulating his copious ideas into a coherent and integrated pattern . . . his capacity for writing a line of melody, and his instinct for harmony and orchestration bespeak a formidable creative talent. . . . Samuel Barber is already a fine and original composer: there is every reason to believe he may ultimately develop into a great one.”

Harris has not stood the test of time, but the adulation accorded to Barber in America came early and was sustained, apart from a reaction that became perceptible in the 1960s. By looking at Barber’s exposure in London, we see how his music gradually made its way in a major cultural capital outside the United States without the assumptions of genius common on its home ground.

The first hearing of his music in London was with a group of young musicians from the Curtis Institute, including the Curtis Quartet, sponsored by the Philadelphia branch of the English-Speaking Union in June 1935. They gave three concerts of American music, the first at Lady Astor’s house in St. James’s Square that included the Serenade, op. 1, for string quartet, Dover Beach, and four other songs. Barber told his parents: “Lady Astor went behind the scenes during the concert and complimented my music by asking if I was dead yet!” The next time Barber’s music was heard in London seems to have been when the Curtis Quartet played the Serenade at the Aeolian Hall on November 25, 1936. The Times merely referred to “a rhapsodical serenade by Samuel Barber and . . . Turina’s La Oracion del torero—neither of them a work of great moment.”

More significant was the British premiere of the String Quartet given by the Curtis Quartet at the Aeolian Hall in November. As The Times reported: “It has a fine slow movement, a meditation that unfolds itself in spirals. Most composers find it easier to write quick movements than slow but Mr. Barber achieves a greater success with the more difficult task.” Indeed he did.

In June 1938 the festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music was held in London. Copland was represented by El Salon Mexico. There was nothing by Barber in the official program—there never would be—but Boosey and Hawkes put on a recital in its studio that included Dover Beach sung by Victor Harding with the Cardiff Ensemble. According to The Times, “This was not modern in the sense that the other works (Lennox Berkeley and Alan Bush) were, for it matched the nineteenth-century words very happily, but it did not sound outmoded and rang true.” As it happens, Vaughan Williams lectured at Bryn Mawr College in 1932, met Barber, and heard him sing Dover Beach to his own accompaniment. According to Barber, Vaughan Williams congratulated him and said: “I tried several times to set Dover Beach but you really got it!”

Barber’s First Essay was given at the Proms on August 24, 1939. The Times reported: “This short and simple piece is well constructed from not very appealing material. . . [T]hough it does not suggest a composer of outstanding originality, it avoids triteness and false brilliance. The points are well made by a practised hand.”

By 1945 the Toscanini recording of the Adagio for Strings had come out, and Gramophone declared: “Barber has an eloquence that I like: he lets himself go, and finds a richness of string speech that will be cordially enjoyed. It is shapely, well-knit music, conservative in idiom, expressive, dignified; music of a good brain that . . . also makes one believe in the composer’s heart.” The recording also impressed William McNaught: “This work has come to the front for good reason. . . . [I]t holds the attention by steady growth and plan: not many composers put such faith in sustained equable strength and reposeful movement. . . . [O]ne returns again and again to this griefless elegy to observe how much meaning can be patiently drawn from a slow, conjunct diatonic melody in contrast to the garrulous haste and bustling figures that are the fashion.”

The Adagio for Strings was in the Proms on 5 August 1945; it was also played by the New London Orchestra under Anatole Fistoulari at the Cambridge Theatre on September 16 and by the New London Orchestra under Alec Sherman on December 15, 1946. Now the Adagio was firmly established in England and would soon go further.

Peter Dickinson’s Samuel Barber Remembered: A Centenary Tribute will be published in March. Further excerpts will follow on this blog.

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