Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Orchestral Music Volume 2
The years immediately following the end of World War Twosaw a consolidation of the success that Samuel Barber had encountered in theconcert hall with his Symphony No.1 and Essay for Orchestra (Naxos8.559024). While the romantic and expressive traits that inform these worksremained at the heart of his idiom, the Cello Concerto and Medea
are marked by an increasingly sophisticated use of the orchestra, as well as agreater harmonic stringency and emotional variety.
The Cello Concerto was written for Raya Garbousova.
The short score was completed in November 1945, coinciding with Barber'sdischarge from the air force, with orchestration taking until December. Thepremiere, by Garbousova, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Sergey Koussevitzky,took place on 5. April, 1946. Despite initial success, and the receipt of theFifth Annual Award of the Music Critics Circle of New York, the concerto hasestablished itself only at the margins of the repertoire. Barber revised the scoreprior to his recording with Zara Nelsova in 1950, and made minor changesthereafter.
The opening movement, Allegro moderato, begins withan abrupt gesture on strings. An understated melodic complex, rather than atheme as such, now unfolds across the orchestra and the soloist joins in almostmatter of factly. Only belatedly is the theme stated as a coherent entity. Aslower version of the theme becomes a musing soliloquy for the soloist, but thecentral development quickly emerges as an incisive orchestral tutti. Thesoloist responds with brusque pizzicati, and a resumption of the initial mood, broadeningas before into the theme's more expressive version. The scene is set for alengthy cadenza, subjecting the theme's constituent elements to the full panoplyof cello techniques. The orchestra re-emerges, growing restive in its response,and leading to an agitated coda.
The central movement, Andante sostenuto, opens witha plaintive siciliana melody on the oboe, subtly derived from that of the firstmovement and intertwined with the soloist's barcarolle-like motion. A harmonic shiftreminiscent of Vaughan Williams brings a more expressively-wroughtcontinuation, before the initial tonality and melody are restored. Theorchestra effects a brief but poignant climax, from where the movement sinksinto ominous reverie.
The finale, Molto allegro e appassionato, opens withanother abrupt tutti gesture, before the soloist leads the way with a vauntingmelody, inviting vigorous repartee with the orchestra. An inward second theme involveseloquent passage-work for the soloist, building up dramatically in theorchestra. A short solo passage leads to an atmospheric episode, lightly scoredin the orchestra's upper reaches and featuring cello harmonics. The initialmomentum is now restored, before the second theme returns in sombre hues toeffect the work's expressive climax. A further brief cadenza, follows, afterwhich soloist and orchestra steer the movement towards its fateful conclusion.
The ballet Medea has a complex history. Commissionedby Martha Graham for the Second Annual Festival of Contemporary Music in May1946, Barber began work to a scenario entitled Cave of the Heart. Thefirst version, completed in April and scored for thirteen instruments, wasfirst performed at Columbia University on 10th May, under the title SerpentHeart. The original title was reinstated for the New York premiere on 27thFebruary, 1947, by which time Barber had reworked the score into a seven- movementsuite for full orchestra, preferring the title Medea, after the principalcharacter. The suite received its first performance on 5th December, with the PhiladelphiaOrchestra and Eugene Ormandy. In 1955,
Barber telescoped the suite into one continuous movement,Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. This was first heardin New York on 2nd February, 1956, with the New York Philharmonic conductedby Oimitri Mitropoulos. Yet the additional music and greater emotional range ofthe suite merit revival.
Parodos introduces the characters with brazen fanfareson brass and xylophone. A melodic sequence unfolds in some of Barber's mosttensile orchestration, abounding in subtle harmonic dissonances. Choros I depictsMedea and Jason, though the cool colouring of solo woodwind and brass, laterupper strings, offsets any overt expression. The music gains in animation, thoughthe brief climax subsides without inciting a greater emotional response TheYoung Princess opens capriciously in solo woodwind and piano. Forceful brassand strings denote the arrival of Jason, the music trying in vain to regain itsinitial charm. Choros II is a ruminative solo for Medea, her'meditation', a lilting violin figure punctuating the music's rhapsodic course.
Medea is the focal point of the whole ballet. The moodis sombre and agitated, tension building gradually and ominously as her 'danceof vengeance' takes shape.
A sudden pick up in tempo finds solo wind in an acerbic exchangeover a syncopated piano ostinato. The music generates increasing rhythmicaggression, before launching into a tragic climax. Kantikos Agonias follows,an enigmatic and uneasy interlude, before Exodos erupts in violentfashion, aptly evoking Medea's crime, the murder of her children. Gaunt brassand yearning strings provoke a brief climax, enshrining the 'jealousy'underlying her actions, before the music winds down to an equivocal close:human actions are no less real for being the stuff of legend.
Few twentieth century pieces have caught the publicimagination more than the Adagio for Strings. Barber's original scoredates from 1936, when it formed the central movement of his String Quartetin B minor, Op.ll. In 1937, Toscanini heard Barber's Symphony No.1
at the Salzburg Festival and asked the composer to supply a piece for his firstseason with the newly-formed NBC Symphony Orchestra. Barber offered the FirstEssay and the Adagio, which were both broadcast on NBC radio on 5.
November, 1938. The inward nature of the latter probably helped reinforce itspublic significance, with performances at the funerals of such luminaries asPresident Roosevelt and Albert Einstein.
The hushed but expressive theme, its modal flavour impartingan evocative timelessness, unfolds in a series of dynamic terraces; intensityincreasing as the rapt mood is effortlessly sustained. Cellos take up thetheme, and the music reaches an impassioned climax. A heartfelt pause, and themelody resumes its elegiac course, resolving as if with a benediction.
The extent to which the Adagio overshadowed his otherworks understandably caused Barber frustration in later years. Yet it isdifficult to gainsay Aaron Copland's description. 'The sense of continuity, thesteadiness of the flow, the satisfaction of the arch that it creates frombeginning to end... makes you believe in the sincerity w