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
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
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