Thursday, 8 April 2010

A very European American composer

In this final extract from Peter Dickinson’s Samuel Barber Remembered the interviewee is the pianist, John Browning (1933-2003). Browning premiered Barber’s Pulitzer prize-winning Piano Concerto in 1962 and had chalked up almost 150 performances by 1969. Browning’s relationship with the composer was warm and collaborative, as this fascinating interview - conducted in New York City in 1981 - reveals:

JB Sam and I met in 1956. I was making my debut with Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic, and his Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance was being premiered. And then Schirmer’s commissioned the Piano Concerto and Sam called me and said, ‘Do you want to do it?’ and I said, ‘Of course. I would be very honored.’ I didn’t get the last movement until about ten days before the premiere, so I was practicing about fifteen hours a day trying to get it memorized because it’s frightfully difficult.

PD What discussions did you have with Sam Barber about the kind of music it might be? Did he come to you with sketches?

JB Sam had a very interesting way of writing for artists. He would have any of us for whom he was writing a work come up to the country house at Mt. Kisco and play through everything we knew for three, four, or five days. Mr. Horowitz did it, Miss Price did it, I did it. And he would get a feel of what he thought our strong points were. For example, Horowitz taught him a tremendous amount about the sostenuto pedal, the middle pedal, and he began to use that a great deal. I brought up things my teacher Rosina LhĂ©vinne had told me about flutter pedals and dividing runs two octaves apart instead of one, which makes a much bigger sound. So, in a way, we all contributed in our fashion to ideas he then went with. For example, he ended the first draft of the first movement pianissimo, and both Mr. Leinsdorf and I, in hearing it, thought: 'Maybe we could suggest that it might end fortissimo so the slow movement would come out of nowhere.' And Sam was always wonderful in that way; he always listened to the performer, and if he hadn’t wanted to change it he wouldn’t have, but he thought 'it’s a good idea,' so he did.

PD Were there other places like that?

JB There were some passages in the last movement that were almost unplayable, particularly at the tempo that it goes. And I said: 'Sam, I just cannot seem to get through them. Can’t we do short cuts? I think it will be just as effective.' And he said: 'Let’s take it over to Mr. Horowitz. If he says it can’t be done, then it can’t be done.' And we took it over. Mr. Horowitz said: 'Sam, I’m afraid John is right. It cannot be played at that tempo.' [laughs]

PD He’s sometimes described as a conservative composer. What kind of a composer does that make him?

JB I think, perhaps like a good performer, a good composer wants a work to succeed—just as we try to make the performance of a work as successful as possible. Now, there have been composers whom we have called 'ivory tower' composers who, it seemed to us, were not writing with the public in mind—people like John Cage. I think in the case of Barber and certainly Britten, these were men who cannot be viewed as contemporary; they must be viewed as we would view Bach or Rachmaninov, who was certainly not a twentieth-century composer. It doesn’t matter when he wrote. It just doesn’t matter. The music is of its own genre. And I think Sam is very much the same way. Certainly, there were contemporary things, but I think Sam achieved a rather eclectic sound—he sounds actually less American than, say, Copland. And yet it was Nadia Boulanger who taught Copland and many other Americans, but Sam never worked with Madame Boulanger.

PD Does it matter that he doesn’t seem to be American—or perhaps he does to you?

JB I think that in some of the early works like Knoxville, where the poetry was very clearly American, then the sound was more so. As he went on I think the later works became far more Scriabin-ish, far more into a kind of European sound, not that wide-open spaced sound we think of as being American.

PD What is the Barber sound?

JB I think the one thing that stands out is the absolutely superb mastery of counterpoint. Really, Sam was a contrapuntal composer. When one looks at the fugue of the sonata, I do not know of another piano fugue as successful since the Brahms Handel Variations or as well written. He studied Bach every day, and he was so comfortable in these forms that they were a natural language. One had the feeling that he was every bit as comfortable with a four-part fugue as Bach was, that he could have written it down like a good crossword puzzle, in ink! That kind of security. I think later on particularly the harmonies were very turn of the century—very Russian almost—but with functional basses. As I say, Sam was perfectly capable of writing twelve tone or dissonance if he wanted to. He always said, “I never want to get trapped in a form or a method.”

PD What sort of a person was he?

JB He was a very complicated man. He had a very dry wit. He could be very aloof and very snobbish; he could also be very 'old shoe' and very comfortable. He loved to have prominent friends very well placed, but he did not use them in a bad way at all. Of course, he and Gian Carlo Menotti had a long association for well over thirty years. I think Sam could be very difficult, at the same time very loyal: he was wonderful to me, he was wonderful to Miss Price. He stood by his artists, if that makes sense. He was an extremely intellectual man; he read constantly; he was fluent in German, French, Italian, Spanish—absolutely fluent. He was truly a very cultivated man. He, in a sense I think, almost thought of himself as more European, oddly enough, because he had lived a great deal in Europe, with the house in Santa Cristina in the Dolomites. He loved Europe, the boat trips of the old days, the European atmosphere. He was a man who became increasingly irritated by the square, modern buildings. He would have been much happier in a nineteenth-century house.

The complete interview with John Browning - as well as others with the likes of Copland, William Schuman, Leontyne Price and Barber himself - can be found in Samuel Barber Remembered, published by the University of Rochester Press.

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