For some years I had been hoping that Samuel Barber would be able to visit Keele University, where I had started the Music Department and its Centre for American Music programme in 1974. Copland and Carter had already been; I had met Cage and Thomson in London; but Barber proved more elusive. Finally I learnt that he was too ill to travel and we had to be content with honouring him at the University with a performance of the Violin Concerto and two performances of the Piano Sonata.
Barber has always been low in personal profile compared with Copland, but his music is just as regularly played throughout the world. I was curious about the success of a composer who hardly seemed American at all, had very little obvious originality in his work, and was often regarded as old-fashioned. So when the BBC invited me to put together a Radio 3 documentary with Arthur Johnson as producer, I looked forward to going on the trail of Samuel Barber. The series of interviews we were given forms the basis of my book Samuel Barber Remembered: A Centenary Tribute.
To start with, Barber was fortunate all his life. His father was a respected doctor in West Chester, Pennsylvania; his aunt Louise Homer was an internationally known opera singer; and her husband Sydney Homer was an accomplished composer of songs and an influential adviser to Barber at all stages. The family lived near enough to Philadelphia for him to become one of the first students at the new Curtis Institute, founded and liberally endowed by Mary Louise Curtis Bok in 1924.
At the age of nine Barber wrote a note to his mother warning her that he was meant to be a composer and not an athlete. At Curtis, though, he was a triple major – in composition, piano and voice. He was always a good pianist and has recorded his Hermit Songs with Leontyne Price. As a singer, he recorded Dover Beach in 1935 and did some professional singing. However, as a result of prizes, awards, friends and family, he was able to concentrate on composing.
It was at Curtis that Barber met Gian Carlo Menotti. Eighteen himself, he was asked to look after the gifted seventeen-year-old from Italy who couldn’t speak English. Menotti has described the beginning of a friendship that lasted over forty years:
'Sam was the very first friend I made in America. I had learnt that he was the idol of the Curtis Institute. He too studied composition with Scalero, but also piano with Isabelle Vengerova and voice with Emilio de Gogorza. He was considered a genius in all three courses. Not only was Sam enormously gifted, but he was very handsome and very intelligent.'
Obviously Menotti was going to be an essential source in every way so Arthur Johnson and I arranged to visit him at his country estate Yester House, some thirty miles outside Edinburgh. Menotti was as charming as ever and, even though he was surrounded by French TV making a film for his seventieth birthday, he gave us about two hours, all preserved on tape. It soon became obvious how much Menotti and Barber had in common. Both came into contact early on with strong musical traditions and, unlike many an enfant terrible of twentieth-century music, they accepted them as they found them. In both careers they achieved popular appeal but, as time went on, some critical disdain came their way. All the same, both could afford, in the words of Liberace, to “cry all the way to the bank.”
After visiting Menotti, our interviews were based in New York – a mixture of composer colleagues, performers, friends, publishers and critics. Composers of very different temperaments from Barber, such as Copland, Schuman and Thomson, found much to admire in his work, and performers with whom he had worked closely were devoted to him.
It was May, which I remembered as fairly warm in New York, but for two days it rained constantly. On one of those wet days we visited Copland at his house, Rock Hill, Peekskill, New York (now Copland House, the centre for American creative arts) situated in dense woodland an hour by train from New York City. Copland recalled the inter-war years as times when he was a modernist getting all the brickbats, but Sam Barber was a conservative. Time has ironed all that out and the difference doesn’t matter. Virgil Thomson, at the age of eighty-five, was less easy to communicate with than Copland because of his deafness. Most of the interview involved shouting but his mind was as acute as ever. He characterized Barber as a composer for “high middle-brow taste”, like Rachmaninov, and began by talking about money. Charles Turner told us that Thomson had a habit of going up to Barber at parties and saying: “You’re the most successful composer alive!” Barber, with a retiring, melancholic and rather private nature did not always enjoy this.
Another composer we met was William Schuman, whose centenary also falls in 2010, who wrote much of his music whilst holding down important jobs including the Presidency of the Juilliard School of Music and then of the Lincoln Center. I asked Schuman what Barber’s style consisted of. He admitted that he once heard the Cello Concerto on the car radio without realizing it was by Barber and insisted this was not important and would not have mattered in previous centuries. The main thing is that the music is “perfectly made” – like Brahms.
This brought us to discuss the appeal of the Adagio for Strings, the one work everybody – dead or alive – knows by Barber. Dead, because it has been widely used as a funeral elegy ever since the death of President Roosevelt in 1945. Even Leontyne Price, who didn’t know about this, said she wanted it played at her own funeral. The universality of the emotions conveyed in the work is incontestable. Exactly what those emotions are is impossible to pin down. Virgil Thomson, provocative as ever, alleged the piece was a “detailed love-scene.”
Barber wrote for some of the greatest performers of the period. Unfortunately Horowitz, who had a crucial role in the Piano Sonata, was not well enough to see us but we met John Browning, for whom Barber wrote his Piano Concerto in 1962.
He stressed that Barber wrote for the public, much as a performer plays to the audience and aims to communicate. He mentioned some ways in which Barber would take account of the performer when a new piece was still rough. For example, the end of the first movement of the Piano Concerto became loud, not soft, at Browning’s instigation.
We met Leontyne Price, one of the finest singers of her generation, at her apartment in Greenwich Village. Barber wrote his Hermit Songs for her and they gave the premiere together. She sang Cleopatra in Barber’s second grand opera, Antony and Cleopatra, commissioned for the opening of the new Met at Lincoln Center in 1966. In her interview she confirms, with plenty of amusing detail, that the occasion was wrong for Barber’s music – and so was Zefirelli’s production. Although there were palpable mishaps and the work got savaged by the critics, Price insisted that she had never been in a flop in her life and she and Barber were very moved by the revised version put on by the Juilliard School in 1974.
Other people we interviewed make it possible to explore the sources of Barber’s music, the nature of its appeal and its historical position. The historian H. Wiley Hitchcock finds Barber a safe, careful composer working within limits, and very lucky in his opportunities. Barber himself agreed about his luck - “I was very lucky always.” Others compared Barber to Bach in writing old-fashioned music of high quality. A comparison with Benjamin Britten is sometimes made but it looks as if they never met. There is some common ground between Barber and William Walton. Both were strongly attracted to Italy and the music of both continues to reach an audience.
Barber never courted publicity, so he gave very few interviews. There are three in this book and the one with Allan Kozinn dates from the last year of Barber’s life. He asked Barber why he had not responded to the various currents of modern music and Barber replied:
'Ah, I was waiting for this. Why haven’t I changed? Why should I? There’s no reason music should be difficult for the audience to understand is there? Not that I necessarily address the audience when I compose, or for that matter, the players. Or posterity. I write for the present and I write for myself. I think that most music that is really good will be appreciated by the audience ultimately.'
Peter Dickinson’s Samuel Barber Remembered: A Centenary Tribute will be published in March. Two CDs of Dickinson's own works have recently been issued by Naxos. Coming next, the late John Browning on the piano concerto and working with Barber.