BARBER: Capricorn Concerto / A Hand of Bridge / Canzonetta / Intermezzo
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Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Capricorn Concerto A Hand of Bridge Intermezzo from Vanessa
Born and raised in Westchester, an upscale suburb ofNew York City, in 1910, Samuel Barber was somethingof a phenomenon, a true musical prodigy. He studiedsomewhat cursorily with his uncle, the composer SidneyHomer, but, even at a precociously early age, Barberwas a natural born musician: he could sing beautifully,play the piano, and began composing when he was eightyears old, a year after he began to play the pipe organwith enough proficiency to accompany services. Theyear was 1918, and his opus one was, appropriatelyenough, War Song, for solo piano, a piece favoured by aBach-style cross relation dissonance of a C sharp on a Cnatural, the sort of harmonic \crunch" which wouldeventually become a benchmark of Barber's style.
When eventually Barber enrolled in the CurtisInstitute, where he was a member of the founding class,he was the single best and brightest student; his skills atthe piano were remarkable, his singing voice angelic andrich (a sombre baritone which has been captured onrecord singing his own Dover Beach) and hiscompositions downright sophisticated. His classmatesjokingly referred to the "three B's" of classical music:Bach, Beethoven and Barber. His refined technique andvery personal style would go on to make him one of themost important composers of his day, even as highmodernism took hold not only of the academies (allseemed either to follow Boulez or rue the consequencesin those chaotic times) but of the concert platform aswell. Barber, though his music was much beloved (andnot just the Adagio for Strings), would bear the mantleof recherche, slightly backwards. The end of his life wasrather sad, when, after the failure on a grand scale of hisopera Antony and Cleopatra (composed to open the newMetropolitan Opera house, and riddled with enoughdisasters to make for interesting reading), Barber all butdisappeared, composing little save a few songs anddying more sad and overlooked than a genius of hisstature deserved.
During World War II, Barber served in the military,though his musical talent was well known; he was evencalled, by Newsweek, "...the most outstandingAmerican serious composer in uniform", and he hadseveral fellow officers lobbying on his behalf that he begranted a post which allowed him more space to workHe wanted nothing more than to return to his routine ofcomposition, and was ultimately granted a morepermissive line of service which enabled him to return tohis longtime companion Gian-Carlo Menotti, whom hemet in his Curtis days, and to Capricorn, his wonderfulhearth and home, so named for the fantastic light it gotduring the winter. It was there and then he wrote hisCapricorn Concerto, scored for the same instruments asBach's Brandenburg Concerto No 2, solo trumpet, oboe,flute, with an accompanying string complement.
The music itself is something of a departure forBarber, bandying between playful, insistent baroquetextures and a more lyrical, more melodically drivencomposition, though Barber is still Barber, a melodistand a modernist alike. Allegedly each member of theCapricorn household, Barber, Menotti, and Chip,Menotti's adopted son, is represented with their ownindividual theme, thematically depicting each of theirpersonalities. The first movement flits between twotempi, Allegro (fast) and Andante con moto (walkingspeed, but with motion), and is cast in a rondo form,with development being the driving force, Barber'sspotless compositional technique on full display. Thesecond movement is playful, save for one tranquilpassage, favoured by a boisterous line for plucked viola,while the final movement, Barber's most direct homageto Bach, features a trumpet fanfare in its spirited midst.
In 1958 Menotti founded the still-extant Spoletofestival, an annual event taking place in his homecountry of Italy, and liked to present, Cabaret style, aprogramme called Album Leaves, wherein artists ofvarying stripes presented short pieces (or poems orplays) composed for the occasion, the most notable ofwhich is Barber's A Hand of Bridge, a nine minutebitchy witty "opera" with a libretto by Menotti. In thisshort piece, scored for four soloists and chamberorchestra, are biographical references to members of theBarber-Menotti intimate circle, a trick Menotti employsin many of his libretti. The story is a quick psychodrama,with the four characters both playing bridge with oneanother and playing out, in their minds, what they thinkof the others at the table. Barber cleverly uses dryrecitative style to set the literal moments of card-play,pitting them against lusher, quasi-arias to outline theirinner thoughts. Their friends Chuck Turner, ThomasSchippers, and Christopher, Barber's nephew, do notescape the knife of the satire, and Barber, in his mostvulgar mode, does not shy away from "jazzy" swungrhythms or overly psychological music, all demanded bythe short but cutting drama.
In the last years of his life, Barber went reclusive,hiding out in his Upper East Side apartment, writingsmall pieces for nobody in particular, his relationshipwith Menotti long a thing of the past, his opera acolossal disaster, and his orchestral pieces getting lessand less play. Though commissions were offered, hewas reluctant to accept, not wanting to bind himself toanything, and more than likely sick of the rat race of theday. But he did manage to write some wonderful piecessimply for the joy of composing, including the subduedMutations from Bach (sometimes called Meditations ona theme from Bach), a sombre work for four horns, threetrumpets, three trombones, tuba and timpani. Here hepays homage to a composer to whom he always felt veryclose: the plainsong Christ, thou lamb of God is playedfour times, in four different versions from history,presented chronologically. The earliest is aharmonization, which Barber, of course, scored for thisbrass ensemble, from 1604 by Joachim Decker, thesecond is Bach's, taken from Cantata 23, followed by aversion Bach reworked into a complex fugue in an organprelude, the third is Barber's own, making use of amuted trumpet, and the final returns to Decker's own.
The piece was not intended to be for any group,occasion, or specific performance. Rather was itsomething that no doubt brewed in Barber's head forsome time, a tribute, at the end of his life, to hisfavourite composer.
The Metropolitan Opera in New York City had beenafter Barber for some time to make a big opera for theircompany, but for various reasons (mostly unsuitablelibretti) he declined. When he accepted, he wanted tomake (with Menotti) a truly "American" work, butsettled on something a little more European--a whollyoriginal work called Vanessa. The story itself, of awoman whose lover returns to her snowy abode afteryears of absence and then promptly falls in love with herdaughter, is tonally rooted in Isak Dennisen's SevenGothic Tales, but it was Menotti and Barber whocollectively dreamed it up. At the height of the pathosriddenaction in the third (and final) act of Vanessa liesthe intermezzo - a plangent-yet-energetic orchestralinterlude, perhaps depicting the passage of the twoweeks that happens between the preceding andfollowing scenes. In context, it depicts Vanessa, theelder, spurned woman; as an orchestral extract, it ishaunting and gorgeous, tense and easygoing, asbeautiful an orchestral fantasia as Barber ever wrote.
In the years following Barber's catastrophic operaAntony and Cleopatra, his second commission from theMetropolitan Opera, Barber was more of a reluctantcomposer. He sank into a depression, into an alcoholicdespair, only rising sporadically to write a piece. One ofthese, Fadograph of a Yestern Scene, is a singlepanelledorchestral work. The title comes from JamesJoyce's Finnegan's Wake, one of Barber's favouritebooks, but the mu