Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Knoxville: Summer of 1915 Toccata Festiva
The music of Samuel Barber has always managed to eludecritics and scholars, largely because he was never part of a particular school,aesthetic, or dogma in the midst of a tumultuous century where composersdefined themselves by artistic camps. The reductive term \neo-romantic" isconveniently attached to Barber's work, yet there was nothing "neo" abouthim--rather, Barber was the last of the true romantics, an American equivalentto Sibelius or Elgar, but with a richer craft, a craggier surface to his work,and a more curious, far-reaching mind.
Barber was born in Westchester, Pennsylvania in March 1910,and showed great promise from an early age, composing some rather impressive,large-scale pieces under the tutelage of composer Sidney Homer, who doubled ashis uncle. In 1924 he entered the Curtis Institute as a member of its firstclass, where he not only studied composition and piano, but also became quite agood baritone. So impressive was he that his fellow students, in awe of hisprodigious talent and keen intellect, spoke without irony of the three "B's","Bach, Beethoven, and Barber."
Barber would go on to be one of the most feted composers ofhis day, winning two Pulitzer Prizes and the Prix de Rome, and receivingcommissions from the world's most established musical institutions, mostnotably the Metropolitan Opera, but the failure of his second opera, Antony andCleopatra, eventually curtailed his otherwise rather prolific output. In theend, watching post-Webernian composers like Boulez and Carter rise toprominence, observing his own evolving obsolescence, made him into a somewhatreclusive, tragic figure. He died in January 1981 in New York City.
In 1942, Barber was commissioned by Bruno Walter to composea work for the New York Philharmonic, and he obliged with his Second Essay forOrchestra, widely regarded as the tightest, most incisive of the threecompositions bearing this title. Some even consider it a single-movementsymphony more than an essay, since it is densely packed, and more happens inits scant ten minutes than in some works which sprawl for half an hour. Themusic itself is all based on the opening flute motif, a sort of quiet fanfare,which eases into the second theme, a more sparse, stark idea in contrast to thelyrical opening. Eventually, Barber spins the initial idea into a spry fugue,and then, in a tour de force, combines all three ideas in a rousing finale,which culminates in a coda echoing the beginning - from his endings come hisbeginnings. It is Barber at his best, showing his flawless technical mechanismat its most sound, most musical.
A few years before his death, in 1976, Barber discussed thepossibility of a commission for a large-scale orchestral work with EugeneOrmandy, then music director for the Philadelphia Orchestra. This became hisThird Essay for Orchestra, a form Barber himself had invented several decadesearlier. The piece has a large orchestral sweep but is cast in a single,unbroken, tightly wrought movement (all of the material is generated from theopening percussion figure). It is not without lyrical moments, but ultimatelyit is less melodic than the other two Essays, both composed over thirty yearsbefore.
It is little wonder that Barber took to the lyricalprose-poetry of James Agee, whose lilting, nostalgic words the composer wouldconvert into one of his most beloved works, Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Thewords evoke quieter, plaintive, more innocent times, and composed, as it was,two years after World War II had come to its horrifying close, everyone in theWestern world sought refuge in the idea of less violent, more optimistic times.Behind the pure sparsity of the musical textures, however, lurks a darkerthreat, the potential for shattered innocence, and it comes as no surprise tolearn that while Barber was writing this piece, his father, to whom Knoxvilleis dedicated, was slowly dying. The work is scored for soprano and stringquintet, with harp, flute and clarinet, and Barber manages a piece whichwonderfully balances the largeness of orchestral writing with the intimacy ofchamber music: the composer himself described the work as a "lyric rhapsody".It was commissioned and first performed by his friend and long-time championEleanor Steber, and the premi?¿re was in April 1948 under the baton of SergeKoussevitzky leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
In 1960, when the wealthy musical patron Mary Zimbalistoffered to pay for a new pipe organ in Phildadelphia, the offer came, to thedouble delight of Eugene Ormandy, with a commission for Barber to write a pieceinitiating the new instrument. For this occasion he made the Toccata Festiva, awork scored for solo organ with a mid-sized orchestra and designed to displaythe full range of technical possibilities of the recent, much appreciated gift.Using the orchestra not as an accompanying force, but to create a sort ofhyper-organ, the piece is a true star-turn for the player, including a fast,furious opening fanfare, and a cadenza, a soloist's moment for virtuosicdisplay, using only the pedals, a feat which baffles even the most accomplishedof performers.
Knoxville: Summer of 1915
words by James Agee
We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennesseein the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.
...It has become that time of evening when people sit ontheir porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street andthe standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hunghavens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breakinghis hollow iron music on the asphalt: a loud auto: a quiet auto: people in pairs,not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talkingcasually, the taste hovering over them in vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard, andstarched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squaring with clownsin hueless amber. A streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping; belling andstarting, stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan andswimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleakspark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dogits tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints; halts;the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter; fainting, lifting, lifts,faints foregone: forgotten. Now is the night one blue dew.
Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he hascoiled the hose.
Low in the length of lawns, a frailing of fire whobreathes...
Parents on porches: rock and rock. From damp strings morningglories hang their ancient faces.
The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air atonce enchants my eardrums.
On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and motherhave spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt,and I too am lying there... They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet,of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all.The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness,and they are very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine,... withvoices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is anartist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at