BARBER: Unaccompanied Choral Music
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Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Born in March 1910 at West Chester, Pennsylvania, Samuel Barber grew up with parents who encouraged an all-round education, an uncle who was a composer (exclusively of songs) and an aunt who was a celebrated contralto of international fame. Their occasional presence in the Barber household was to be the most important early influence on the young boy who announced at the age of nine that he intended to be a composer. At fourteen Barber entered the newly founded Curtis Institute in Philadelphia that opened for the first time in 1924 (he was in fact only the second student to go there). Revered by his fellow students (including Menotti), he became the star pupil excelling in all subjects and developing too a fine baritone voice. Indeed, such was the quality of his singing that he considered a career as a soloist, giving recitals and recording his own 'Dover Beach'
for the NBC Network. Barber achieved orchestral success with his The School for Scandal
and Essay for Orchestra
, showing a creative personality inclined towards the nineteenth-century European tradition, identifying him early in his career as an unabashed Romantic. In the 1930s he earned praise for being one of the most talented composers of his age and scorn by modernists who considered his style utterly anachronistic. It was this romantic idiom, however, that won for him numerous prizes including the Pulitzer (twice) and the Prix de Rome and in 1937 he was the first American composer to be represented at the prestigious Salzburg Festival with his Symphony in One Movement
. Any brief glance, however, at Barber's collected works shows a distinct bias towards music with words, and setting texts for chorus or solo songs occupied the composer throughout his creative life. Between his early Matthew Arnold-inspired 'Dover Beach'
of 1933 and his large-scale choral work 'The Lovers'
of 1971, setting words by the Chilean Pablo Neruda, Barber demonstrates extraordinarily wide literary interests. In particular he sought out English and Irish writers, notably James Joyce and the Anglo-Irish James Stephens, and from them developed an inclination towards Celtic texts with a melancholic and nostalgic theme, which aptly matched his own musically romantic persuasion. 'A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map'
is a disturbing setting of a poem by Stephen Spender describing the death of a soldier in the Spanish Civil War, during which the poet had spent time in Spain. It is scored for four-part male chorus with three kettledrums, adding optional brass parts after its publication, and was written in 1940. The unsettling silences, timpani glissandi and haunting final bars all contribute to the grim reality expressed in the text. Its structure is in the form of a double refrain where each verse begins with the words 'A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map
' ending with a second refrain 'all under the olive trees
'. 'Under the Willow Tree', is taken from Barber's opera Vanessa
(1956-7) to a text by Gian Carlo Menotti. Writing for solo tenor and four-part chorus this is a felicitous partnership of words and music, a carefree waltz lending piquancy to the cooing of two doves in love. From December 1968 comes the dark, but beautiful 'Twelfth Night'
to words by Laurie Lee. Written for a cappella
chorus with occasional divisions its astringent harmonies and bare fourths and fifths mirror the austere tone of the five verses. The same winter Barber set words by Louise Bogan for 'To be sung on the water'
in which he creates a serene lullaby, where pairs of antiphonal voices and a three-note melodic figure pulse in a gentle lapping motion. 'The Monk and his Cat'
portrays a philosophical scholar and his pet, that cohabit in mutual harmony, their peaceful existence bound by lilting rhythms and a piano part over which the cat appears to crawl. Based on early Irish texts and arranged by W.H. Auden, this song belongs originally to Barber's Hermit Songs
, Op. 29
and was transcribed for chorus in 1967. The familiar 'Agnus Dei'
was originally the slow movement of Barber's early string quartet written in Italy in 1936. It was subsequently reworked and renamed in 1938 Adagio for Strings
and, in 1967, was further transformed into a divided a cappella
chorus to the words from the Latin Mass. Its stepwise movement, long-limbed lyricism and elegiac mood have justifiably earned the work its extraordinary popularity. Forced to leave Europe in 1939, Barber returned to the Curtis Institute where he ran a Madrigal Chorus. It was for this vocal ensemble that he conceived 'Reincarnations', a trio of Celtic part-songs to words by James Stephens. The exuberant and polyphonic 'Mary Hynes', actually written in 1936, contrasts initial rhythmic vigour with tender lyricism. 'Anthony O'Daly'
is based on a true Irish rebel tale in which a captain is condemned to death and dies without betraying his friends. Throughout this atmospheric lament a tolling bell-like figure underpins the other voices. In 'The Coolin', the last of the group, a gentle siciliano
-like rhythm supports the undulating vocal lines of this delicate love-poem. 'The Virgin Martyrs'
is a setting of a medieval Latin text, translated by Helen Waddell, for four-part unaccompanied female voices. Beginning with just 'pure' white notes, its paired imitative entrances and shared vocal character suggest study of renaissance polyphony. It was written during the spring of 1935 when Barber was staying in a small house owned by his aunt at Pocono Lake Preserve in Pennsylvania. The following summer, when Barber and his friend Menotti were staying at an idyllic mountain location near Salzburg, he wrote 'Let Down the Bars, O Death',
where expressive discords within a strictly chordal texture and abrupt minor/major shifts frame tender, ambivalent words by Emily Dickinson. He commented in a letter to his parents, 'I wrote a little chorus the other morning, quite good, it will be all right for someone's funeral'. From the same period come 'Heaven-haven'
and 'Sure on this shining night', that both began life originally as songs and were later arranged for chorus, in 1961 and 1941 respectively. The first is a chordal setting of words by Gerard Manley Hopkins concerning a young nun wishing to relinquish the outside world and asking for a trouble-free environment away from 'the swing of the sea
'. The second, now with a piano, recreates James Agee's affirmative text in a canon between soprano and tenor voices, where gentle dissonances and a sweeping melodic line over a pulsating chordal accompaniment creates one of Barber's most poetic settings. The 'Easter Chorale'
was written for the dedication of the bell-tower of Washington's National Cathedral in 1964 and sets Pack Browning's creation text in the style of a hymn-tune, chordal throughout, modal and with unyielding crotchet movement. Two years later Barber's operatic venture Antony and Cleopatra
was to prove to be a disappointing failure, musically compromised by Zeffirelli's glitzy production. Two choruses, however, have secured some admiration and are both in an advanced harmonic idiom that make considerable demands on the chorus. 'On the Death of Antony'
(from Act IV of Shakespeare's tragedy) is for women's voices, with a text adapted by the composer, and On the death of Cleopatra,
now for mixed voices who bid farewell to their poisoned Queen. One of Barber's most extended, ambitious and advanced unaccompanied settings is his impressive eight-part 'God's Grandeur',
a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins written in 1938 for the Westminster Choir School's Festival of contemporary American music. Although initially not published thi