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Samuel Barber

Biography

Born: 1910   Died: 1981   Country: USA   Period: 20th Century
An open-hearted yet tough romantic, Samuel Barber was one of the few twentieth century American composers to fight for the primacy of lyricism. In his last decades he seemed to be losing the battle, but by the end of the century Barber had posthumously become one of America's most widely performed and recorded composers. In particular, his emotive Violin Concerto and Adagio for Strings have gained a popularity exceeded only by certain works of Read more Aaron Copland.

Barber entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1924, where he met future opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti; the two would become lifelong lovers. Barber was an able pianist and a baritone of some talent, but he was an even more precocious composer. His 1933 Curtis graduation piece, the spirited School for Scandal Overture, has become a beloved concert opener.

Barber developed into America's most enduring composer of art songs; most popular is his tender setting for soprano and chamber orchestra of James Agee's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Barber had unerring taste in texts, and his literary interests led him to compose some allusive short orchestral pieces. Yet he was particularly adept at writing abstract works, such as Music for a Scene from Shelley. Many of these are in large forms: two symphonies, one string quartet (from which was drawn the Adagio for Strings, first popularized by Arturo Toscanini), an ambitious piano sonata, and one concerto each for violin, cello, and piano. While following traditional formats, they are propelled by a dramatic expressivity that hadn't been fashionable since Sibelius. Equally direct in their emotional content are his three Essays for Orchestra, the second being the best crafted and most acclaimed.

Barber would have seemed an ideal composer for the stage, but he had limited success in that realm. Medea, a 1947 dance score for Martha Graham, has found greater longevity in orchestral excerpts. His 1958 Vanessa garnered him the first of two Pulitzer Prizes (the second was for his Piano Concerto), but, like most other American operas, it quickly dropped out of sight. Barber wrote Anthony and Cleopatra to open the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966, but critical reaction was so hostile that he produced very little during his remaining 15 years. Barber was too conservative to be fashionable; his harmony could be astringent, but his tonality remained secure, his rhythms were strong and clear, and he was not above writing a good melody. Read less
Hindemith, Barber, Larsson, Janacek / Thompson Wind Quintet
Release Date: 03/14/2000   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8553851   Number of Discs: 1
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American Classics - Barber: Orchestral Works Vol 1 / Alsop
Release Date: 06/13/2000   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8559024   Number of Discs: 1
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Barber: Souvenirs; Menotti: Sebastian, Amahl And The Night Visitors / Schenck
Release Date: 01/04/1993   Label: Koch International Classics  
Catalog: 7005   Number of Discs: 1
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Barber: Piano Concerto, Die Natali / Alsop, Prutsman
Release Date: 10/22/2002   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8559133   Number of Discs: 1
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American Classics - Barber: Choral Music
Release Date: 08/29/2006   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8559053   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Hermit Songs, Op. 29

 

About This Work
This cycle of ten songs was commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation and completed during 1952 and 1953. The texts are anonymous writings from Irish monastic sources of the eighth through the thirteenth centuries -- most notably Read more marginalia of hand-copied manuscripts -- that embrace every possible sentiment, from the devout to the obscene. Barber responded with sympathetic settings that greatly amplify the humor, wisdom, and piety of the various texts. Leontyne Price gave the first performance of the Hermit Songs, with the composer at the piano, in Washington, D.C., October 30, 1953.

The first song, At Saint Patrick's Purgatory, is a prayer to God asking for protection on an upcoming voyage. The speaker also asks for forgiveness for his sins. This first song is musically similar to the other songs of the cycle. Occurrences in this song such as mixed meter, a lack of time signature, and the extraordinary presence of open fourths and fifths continue throughout Hermit Songs. The second song, Church Bell at Night is a short, calm song, claiming that the company of a bell is better than that of a "light and foolish woman." The third song is a beautiful recitative and aria titled St. Ita's Vision. The aria section is a beautiful lullaby sung to the baby Jesus. The Heavenly Banquet is the title of the fourth song. It is festive and describes the speaker's wish to feed and entertain biblical figures. The fifth song of the cycle, The Crucifixion, is a tender lament highlighted by dissonance. Barber does well in bringing out the suffering entailed by the speaker. Sea-Snatch, the sixth song, is frantic and describes a ship lost to a storm at sea. The seventh song, Promiscuity, is short and mischievous. The next song, The Monk and his Cat, has a relaxed mood and compares the daily lives, eyes, and joys of the two figures in the title. The Praises of God is the ninth song. This song points to the foolishness of those who do not enjoy singing. The final song, titled The Desire for Hermitage, is calm, yet dissonant, and contemplates hermitage and death. Barber had an interest in the idea of reclusion and hermitage throughout his career.

- All Music Guide Read less

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