Samuel Barber: An Improvisatory Portrait
Essay by Paul Wittke
In any pantheon of American musicians, Samuel Barber commands a prominent niche. Along with the works of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, his are the most often played. He has become almost popular — a word that would make him cringe. Barber would be amused and amazed by all this, for he often called himself "a living dead" American composer.
During the heady years of our musical adolescence, the 1930s and ’40s, he was virtually ignored in any book of American musical life, relegated to a polite and often ungracious footnote, for not believing in raising the decibel of aural shockwaves. He remained a maverick romantic lyricist in a turbulent age. Furthermore, he committed the unpardonable sin of being a cosmopolitan when most composers were belligerently American, or took refuge in European techniques that have no relationship to the American psyche. In our current pluralistic climate, when it is no longer fashionable to denigrate any compositional style, Barber is home free.
The famous brouhaha of the 1930s is now moldy history. Ashley Pettis in The New York Times lambasted Arturo Toscanini for performing Barber’s music — the Adagio for Strings, no less — and accused Barber of being an antediluvian anachronism. The squabble subsided when Roy Harris — who in no way shared Barber’s aesthetics — came to his defense, and said "conservatism and advanced music could and should live as a harmonious happy couple." Barber in return called Harris the father of the American Symphony.
It took courage to be Samuel Barber in the 1940s; he said so himself. This was the time of the emerging giants — Copland, Thomson, Sessions, Piston, Carter, and company. But despite the derision of his enemies no one ever denied his polished style, or his integrity, nor did they resent his honesty in admitting he wanted to reach a large musical audience. In this he was more than successful.
A lot of nonsense has been written about Barber’s music, some overly adulatory and some unseemingly nasty. When all the rhetoric is washed away, what is significant is that his music is now valued as a priceless contribution to our musical history. And what is most important and becoming increasingly apparent is the fact that he was a far more complex man and musician than he has been given credit for; beneath his charm he was deadly serious about his art and had no interest "in superficial nonsense," by which he meant most of the intellectual and musical currents floating around at that time. He belonged to no school, clique, or organization, and (except for his association with Gian Carlo Menotti) went his own solitary way, never a denizen of the boardroom or the locker room. Undoubtedly he had the same inner conflicts that confront any dedicated artist, although his talent was recognized early. Particularly after the Toscanini affiliation many critics did not understand that Barber marched to a different drummer. He was never a camp follower of anyone. One of the few musicians who always recognized his individuality was William Schuman, who remained a staunch admirer of Barber’s music throughout their lives.
Barber’s style — his musical logic, sense of architectural design, effortless melodic gift, direct emotional appeal — remained steadfast no matter what harmonic or rhythmic sophistications he added later. This was evident even in the early works such as the Overture to the School for Scandal (1931), Music for a Scene from Shelley (1933), and the early songs, a genre in which even today he has few equals. His natural flair for counterpoint was recognized and dinned into him by his composition teacher, Rosario Scalero, a stern taskmaster who taught at the newly opened Curtis Institute of Music where Barber was enrolled at the age of 14. Every day of his life Barber played or studied the music of J.S. Bach. He also loved Brahms from whom he learned how to compress profound emotions in small and expanding modules of highly charged musical expression (Cello Sonata, 1932). Though never sounding like Mendelssohn, Barber too had romantic tendencies which he united in a chastened and aristocratic classic style (Violin Concerto, 1939; "Scherzo" of his Piano Sonata, 1949). Later he added Debussy, Stravinsky (Capricorn Concerto, 1944), polytonality (Second Symphony, 1944), atonality (Medea, 1946; Prayers of Kierkegaard, 1954), 12-tone rows (Nocturne, 1959; Piano Sonata), jazz (Excursions, 1944; Hand of Bridge, 1959). But reference to other composers and styles is no sign that Barber was a slavish eclectic. Like all composers anywhere, he absorbed the musical currents hovering about in his time. He may never have been a pathbreaker, but he was never anyone’s epigone. John Corigliano described his style most succinctly as "an interesting dichotomy of harmonic procedures employed [by Barber] throughout his career — an alternation between post-Straussian chromaticism and often diatonic typical American simplicity."
To our sound bite generation, Barber’s life is devoid of any excitement. He was never a minor subsidiary figure in even a mildly lurid scandal, he shunned the glamour of partisan musical and non-musical politics, he gave no lectures, he wrote no books, he was not a performer — although he began his career as a singer — and he did not teach, except for two years at Curtis which he said he heartily disliked. He went his own merry (some would say morose) way. He did nothing but compose, a rare privilege in a profession that does not allow for any overabundance of luxuries.
Certainly in the early years he was in many ways the spoiled darling of the gods. He was born into a comfortable, educated, social, and distinguished American family (he was related to Robert Fulton) in West Chester, Pennsylvania on 9 March 1910. He was spared the virtues of poverty and never enjoyed the values of starving in a garret. His father was a doctor, an Episcopalian pillar of society, his mother was a sensitive amateur pianist; his aunt, Louise Homer, a leading soprano at the Metropolitan Opera, was married to Sidney Homer, a respectable composer of American art songs. Perhaps more than anybody it was Homer who molded the integrity and aesthetic values of his nephew. When he died in 1953 Barber was profoundly grieved.
Barber, an uncommonly bright boy, was unduly pampered and spoiled. He retained the art of playing stage center; he never fully outgrew these years, and remained a master of attracting friends who, as he did, indulged in caviar and champagne. In his teens at Curtis he was a triple threat prodigy of composition, voice, and piano and became a favorite of Mary Louise Curtis Bok, founder of the school. It was she who introduced him to the Schirmer family (his only publisher) and later helped him to acquire Capricorn, his home in Mount Kisco, New York. At this time he met Gian Carlo Menotti, a 17-year-old Italian youth, recommended to the school by Toscanini. In 1928 his winning a prize from Columbia University for his Violin Sonata financed a trip to Europe. His interest in European life and culture now blossomed into a full blown love affair. Forever after he felt equally at home on two continents.
After the success of his early Overture to the School for Scandal (1931), Music for a Scene from Shelley (1933), Adagio for Strings (1936), First Symphony in One Movement (1936), First Essay (1937) and Violin Concerto (1939) he did not have to beg for performances by the world’s leading conductors — Arturo Toscanini, Eugene Ormandy, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Bruno Walter, Charles Munch, George Szell, Artur Rodzinski, Leopold Stokowski, and Thomas Schippers. And most of his compositions were commissioned or first performed by such artists as Vladimir Horowitz, Eleanor Steber, Raya Garbousova, John Browning, Leontyne Price, Pierre Bernac, Francis Poulenc, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. His life until the unwarranted disaster of Antony and Cleopatra (1966) was a series of triumphs.
Favored though he was, to those who could pierce the shell of his courtly reserve and tolerate the barbs of his waspish tongue he was a loyal friend, a fantastic conversationalist, and an endlessly entertaining companion. On the one hand he was resourceful in annoying his enemies and on the other, found many subtle ways to display the bonds of friendship. Difficult as he sometimes was, his friends were and still are legion. Barber was in many ways a double man who seemed to live in two simultaneous time warps. Often, he was with you and yet he was not; even so he always managed to be polite and solicitous. Far from being mollycoddled and flighty he could be tough; he was adept at getting what he wanted, not in a burly, aggressive marketplace manner, but swathed in charm, humor, deftness, masterminded by a keen pragmatic intelligence.
He was truly cultivated, with an encyclopedic knowledge of art, literature, music, and more than a few other subjects. Fluent in languages, he read Proust in French, Goethe in German, Dante in Italian, Neruda in Spanish and Moby Dick in Italian (at least he said he did). Barber agreed with Flaubert that literature was a perpetual orgy. At one time he seriously thought of becoming a writer, and the few extant letters we have are written with the panache of a born writer — spontaneous, perceptive, funny, concrete. (In this ability he is in the class of Benjamin Britten and Virgil Thomson.) He often casually mentioned that the son of one of his benefactors, Mrs. Bok, in a fit of jealousy, destroyed all his youthful letters to her. Although he understood in hind-sight the jealousy behind this act, he very much regretted that it happened for much of the history of his early years was irrevocably lost. Fortunately at the same time he was writing often and copiously to his Uncle Sidney. These letters have been preserved by one of Homer’s daughters and so we do have a glimpse, if tepid and guarded, of his formative years. Homer was a beloved relative, and of a more conservative generation. Barber could be more candid with the more modern Mrs. Bok.
Barber was a fervent devotee of gossip, even in his reading. Autobiographies, journals, the diaries of everyone from Rousseau, Pepys, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky (he was partial to anything Russian) to Churchill, letters of the Marquise de Sévigné, Darwin, or Hart Crane. An avid subscriber to magazines, he absorbed everything from Vanity Fair and The Smithsonian to the scholarly literary journals, especially Botteghe Oscure. This handsome, multi-language periodical, printed in Rome, was famous for publishing every important and about-to-be important writer of its day (the 1930s and 40s) in their original languages. He read the text of James Agee’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 when it was first published in the pages of the new-born Partisan Review, a journal destined to become the fountainhead of the New York intelligentsia. Barber was an avid admirer of Trollope and read all of the Barchester series (long before they were discovered by "Masterpiece Theatre"). The "New York Edition" of Henry James was one of his prized possessions. But he was no antiquarian and kept abreast of contemporary literature.
He was no bookworm, no remote stuffy intellectual; he had nothing in common with horn-rimmed scholars entombed in unairconditioned libraries. He wore his learning with a light and phosphorescent wit. But his moods were unpredictable. You never knew when he would shift from a serious discussion of Bach cantatas to a zany impulse, suggesting to "go to Sweden and find out if Strindberg really was an alchemist" or "take a tramp steamer to see it rain in the Rain Forest."
One thing was positively off limits; you could not discuss his music with him, particularly works in progress. If you penetrated this sacred domain, you were lucky to escape unscathed with a "Well, I’m writing some Czerny etudes" (the Piano Sonata) or "something incestuous, you’ll love it" (Andromache’s Farewell) or "a setting from your Bible" (Fadograph, from Finnegans Wake). Music was his life, his private world, and he carefully guarded any attempt to breach the ramparts. If you even hinted at the subject, he would regale you with a complete, soulful recounting of his "servant problem." The machination of his chauffeur and his eternally pregnant wife, (Barber’s cook) fascinated him. He unquestionably loved them, was fascinated by their quotidian problems, and solved their difficulties in many, sometimes costly, ways.
He was an astute art, theater, and film critic, was well-versed in painting and did a bit of it himself. He drew very well and if he thought you were interested in these "dabblings" and not the man who produced them, he would show you his temperas. Barber was unusually modest, and his art works had a touching, poetic quality that he only revealed to his very close acquaintances.
Barber’s relationship with other composers such as Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland was generally polite but occasionally the crossing could be rough. Composers in the Roger Sessions camp brushed him aside and he returned their compliments bite by bite. Even with people he greatly admired, like Leonard Bernstein, there were awkward moments. He was always courteous but his scabrous wit, often coiled in honeyed sentences, was not always appreciated. Yet there was no question that most of his colleagues respected him, as he reciprocated in kind.
In spite of his famous quip, "How awful that the artist has become nothing but the after-dinner mint of society," he was not notoriously plebeian. He loved to hobnob with the wealthy and famous provided they had intellects to match. This well-bred American felt very much at ease with Princess Bassiano who financed Botteghe Oscure, Countess de Polignac, the reigning patroness of Paris, and whose salon was de rigueur for the intelligencia of the 1920s and ‘30s, and Vicomtesse de Marie-Laure Noailles, a friend of many modern artists and musicians.
Never one to man the barricades, he did enter the political arena on two memorable occasions. He was president of the International Music Council of UNESCO, where he did much to bring into focus and ameliorate the conditions of international musical problems. He was one of the first American composers to visit Russia, where he became a friend of Shostakovich who later visited him at Capricorn. Barber was also influential in the successful campaign of serious composers against ASCAP. Through his and other musicians’ efforts, serious composers increased the share of royalties they receive from their compositions.
When Barber entered a room you knew he was a presence. His penetrating brown eyes took in every nook, cranny, and paper clip, and for a fraction of a second you felt like a suspect in a police lineup. Then the eyes became warm, his hands outstretched, and he gave you an almost annihilating bear hug. After the usual amenities, he would confide some impish bit of misconduct. Rapidly the conversation became more cordial, and soon you were enmeshed in serious discussion, interloaded with much laughter and salacious banter. Barber was always a challenge to be with. In some ways, he was a victim of over-refinement, and in later years could pass for a rather decadent Russian nobleman. But he was essentially very American; he had the curmudgeonly mien of the mature Henry James or Edmund Wilson. There is no doubt that he came from the same mold.
A cursory look at Barber’s musical output shows his identity with literature, and perhaps can give us a possible insight to his biography, his thinking, and feeling — particularly Knoxville: Summer of 1915, The Lovers, and Andromache’s Farewell. The personal meaning of the abstract works from the early String Quartet (1936) to the last Ballade (1977) can only be surmised; but if one made an in-depth study of the music, the purely semantic gestures and signposts that are strewn throughout — as in any composer’s works — offer enough clues so that an attempt can be made to interpret their subtext.
The Adagio for Strings (1936) resembles Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. In these works both composers weave a web of stately, melancholy sound. Vaughan Williams’s modal score specifically creates in a miraculous way the world of Tudor England; yet in spite of its expressivity there is an impersonal and remote air about it. Barber, on the other hand, is more enigmatic. We have to guess what he means; the Adagio’s power lies in being a work whose tragic atmosphere is both subjective and universal — it resonates in each of us a personal note of somber thought. We bring to it our own meaning. It surprised and often disturbed Barber that this deeply felt work was so often performed at solemn occasions. To him it was "just music," (a typical Barber evasion).
It is obvious that the three Essays are a musical equivalent of the literary form that Barber loved and read from Addison and Steele to Aldous Huxley and E.B. White. Like the essay, these pieces are epigrammatic, and usually the elaboration of a basic idea. They also echo the form and idea of short 19th-century descriptive works like Berlioz’s Corsair and Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave. These Romantic titled pieces, like Barber’s untitled ones, are condensed exercises in classic structure.
The first overtly titled piece is Dover Beach (1931). It is important in Barber’s biography. He was then a trained singer and had a beautiful baritone voice. Vaughan Williams (again) heard him perform it at Bryn Mawr College, admired the work, and encouraged Barber to continue to compose. Dover Beach is also another proof that Barber’s melancholy was endemic to his nature. Why else should a young man of 21 choose to set such a bleak poem as Matthew Arnold’s? He was a solitary child, preferring to read and live in his own world rather than engage in athletics. The sports he did indulge in were noncombative — hiking, skiing, ice skating, swimming. He had no taste for the American desire to win every game in which he participated. Quite the contrary, competition in this sense was anathema to his inborn solitary nature. Dover Beach represents Barber’s first work in an extended form for voice and ensemble — a form that he was to become a master of; in this case the ensemble was a string quartet rather than orchestra. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947), Andromache’s Farewell (1962), and Two Scenes from Antony and Cleopatra (1966) are Barber at his best.
Barber always retained the benefits of his vocal training. His speaking voice was beautifully modulated, if at times too self-consciously mid-Atlantic. His singing must have been more than adequate in 1956 to impress Rudolf Bing, when he sang him the score of Vanessa (1957). Although the opera had not been previously commissioned, the impresario was so astonished he accepted and produced the work. Barber also had an improvising skill at creating his own folk music, seemingly authentic songs that he would sing in a poker-faced, benign manner with unprintable lyrics to match.
The Music for a Scene from Shelley could only have been written by a budding, aesthetic neophyte who could still respond in 1933 to the idealism of a Shelley poem. Barber quickly outgrew this overripe Romantic bombast. But it is not surprising that the wit and brio of Sheridan’s Restoration play The School for Scandal should appeal to him. The themes of gossip and social misdemeanors were a never-ending passion of the composer. The polished insouciance of Capricorn Concerto (1944) reflects this. (Add to this the serious and classically structured Serenade for String Quartet (1929), Cello Sonata (1932), and String Quartet (1936) and we have a preview of the later Samuel Barber.)
Oddly, the lighter side of Barber is not very often revealed in his music. The four-piano "bagatelles" Excursions (1942-44), his first foray into Americana, is an exception. Its dry Stravinskian version of boogie-woogie, blues, cowboy songs, and hoedown are clever, almost wry comments on the rush to embrace our cultural roots that was current in the 1940s. This polished music is not typical Barber.
On the other hand Barber was not completely indifferent to such homespun sentiments. This is evident in his almost Hallmark settings of carols sung in American churches at Christmastime, Dïe Natali (1960) and his variations on Wondrous Love (1958) — here his knowledge and love of J.S. Bach came to the fore — a 19th-century shape-note hymn published in the Original Sacred Harp (Atlanta, Georgia, 1869).
Souvenirs (1952) is a different story. Written as a four-hand piece for his friend Charles Turner and himself to amuse their friends, it eventually became a scintillating New York City Ballet score. Here nostalgia is wedded to gentle humor. The plush age of Edith Wharton’s old New York is epitomized. Barber revelled in the ambiance of the color and lifestyle of the disappearing luxury hotels of Europe and America — particularly the Plaza. When he was in New York he often went there for afternoon tea just to hear the continental trio perform the sugary music of the turn of the century, music that embodied the aura of an earlier America he loved. (Barber had his gather-round-the-piano side.)
In Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947) he does let down the bars and put his heart on the line. James Agee’s text and Barber’s music are so sturdily wedded that it is difficult to separate them. It is a rueful and nostalgic recreation of our lost innocence. The sane and sanitized world of Barber’s West Chester and Agee’s southern town is made palpable to us all.
The cosmopolitan Samuel Barber and the gnarled eccentric Yankee Charles Ives would never have become boon companions. Barber had a marked antipathy to Ives and made no secret of it. (Ives would have returned the compliment.) Perhaps they both would have been dismayed yet perversely pleased if it was suggested that the Concord Sonata and Knoxville: Summer of 1915 are really two sides of the same rock-ribbed American coin. These two classic works have encapsulated, in a musical daguerreotype, the irretrievable simplicity of our vanished past.
Summer Music (1956), Barber explains, depicts the same impeccable, sunlit world. It too is a period piece, but is not quite as pristine. It also evokes well-kept lawns, clanging trolleys with straw seats, beloved relatives, Brandywine picnics, drowsy afternoons, cool porches, and even (apocryphal?) a sexual experience. This is an atmosphere well-delineated by another Pennsylvania artist, Andrew Wyeth. It is interesting that the worldly wise Barber explored the same boyhood material for a second time, although its purity is not quite as unadulterated.
Actually West Chester was no cultural backwater. It was near Philadelphia and Barber had easy access to its offerings, and always retained a soft spot for the city; it played a major part in his education, and was a definitive part of his background. Barber had the advantages of both sides of the American genteel years. Like the James brothers and Wallace Stevens (whom he also resembles in some ways) he was a member of a society that observed good manners and believed in the necessity of controlled respectability. It was a milieu that took life and its obligations seriously, but added a generous helping of intelligent conversation and hearty laughter.
Barber never gave any spoken indication of a religious belief. But his orthodox Presbyterian-Quaker background left a deep-rooted imprint on him. We can sense this in his choice of such texts as Hermit Songs (1953) and Prayers of Kierkegaard. True, the Hermit Song poems, written by 14th-century monks, are both sacred and profane, but the majority of them lean toward an attitude of simple faith. They may also be interpreted as examples of the isolated lonely life of an artist as well as a religious. The last text ("I came into the world") is touched with the ironic humor characteristic of Barber. In Hermit Songs, like Dïe Natali, faith is taken for granted, situated within rigid Christian bounds.
But Prayers of Kierkegaard is unequivocally a religious statement. Here the no-nonsense realistic-yet-hopeful attitude of American Protestantism, the nucleus of Barber’s upbringing, has found a center. He wrote, in discussing the work: "One finds here three basic truths(:) imagination, dialectic, and religious melancholy. The truth he [Kierkegaard] sought after was a truth which was a truth for me." Can any definition of a faith be clearer?
In both of these works Barber conveys the passing of time in subtle ways, and not only by his individual use of Gregorian chant. ("For me, it is the most religious music possible.") Is it a misreading of Hermit Songs to note that the medieval experience of time, experienced in the here and now (immanence), is expressed by the absolute absence of metric notation in the entire cycle? The notated Prayers of Kierkegaard also has Gregorian elements but ends with a four-square chorale. In the Protestant world, time is linear and is experienced as a process of life’s unpredictability but with a promise of a divine heaven (transcendence). It seems that Barber, by his own admission, reveals he is at heart a good Presbyterian.
The composer and his close friend Martha Graham were fascinated by the correspondence between the problems of Greek mythology and those of the contemporary world. The emotive dramatic power and relentless drive of their combined efforts in the ballet Medea (1946) are the result of their complete immersion in the complex and ever reverberating meanings of myth. Graham has often acknowledged her indebtedness to the theories of C.G. Jung. During the ballet’s conception, she gave Barber several of Jung’s books to read because she rightly felt that he needed some kind of emotional assistance at that time. His interest in the Swiss psychologist even extended to his studying the writings of Mircea Eliade, particularly his Shamanism, but eventually Barber found both thinkers "too complicated for his uneducated soul."
Medea concerns aspects of the problem that always was a compelling interest of Barber — possessive, destructive love that feeds upon itself. Jealousy is the motor force behind this powerful, aggressive score; the work is an act of catharsis for audience and composer alike.
Love and its pitfalls are the subtext of many of his vocal compositions from the James Joyce Chamber Music song cycle (1936) to the bitter, subjective Despite and Still cycle (1969). It is subtly suggested in the Mélodies Passagères (1950-51) written when he boasted "he was in love" (again).
But it is The Lovers (1970), his most audacious work, that is a frank exposure of his undisguised feelings. The cool Barber here exposes a cauldron of emotion, bordering on the world of Menotti — "Love has a bitter core, Vanessa." It is a prime example of Barber’s ability to fine-tune the sensuous appetites — either restrained or demonic — an ability that gives so much of his work its power and immediacy.
Barber was tremendously amused at the controversy aroused by the erotic text of the Neruda poems he set in The Lovers. (It was suggested to him by Valentin Herranz.) Some members of the Girard Bank that commissioned the work were not amused. When he asked them "whether they still have love affairs in Philadelphia" he won his case.
Barber had a native passion for Celtic, particularly Irish, literature. His first songs were settings of James Stephens; one of his last works was based on a quotation from James Joyce. Reincarnations, acknowledged as a masterpiece of American choral literature, also has a text by James Stephens. The Hermit Songs are medieval Celtic. Barber considered himself a throwback Irishman. He loved the land and its people, their melancholy strain, their wild humor, their verbal felicity.
He was a guest at Bowens Court, the estate of the Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen, about which she so poignantly wrote in her book of the same name. And he was often invited to Glenveagh Castle, inherited by his American friend Henry McIllhenny, a Philadelphia art collector and curator of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Barber was a great admirer of Yeats, especially the world-weary, realistic poet of the late years, not the spirit-guided author of "The Vision." (Oddly enough he set only one of his poems, "The Secrets of the Old.") He apparently had a minor epiphany at the poet’s grave at Bulbec. The beauty of the surroundings, the out-of-time atmosphere, made the imaginative power of Yeats’s poetry come patently alive for him there. He told the story often and very movingly. Yeats and Barber are in no way comparable, but on some atavistic level they share the Irish soul.
James Joyce, the antithesis of Yeats, was of equal importance to Barber. He was a close reader of Joyce and familiar with many of the books about him and his work. As early as 1936 he composed his first mini-drama of love long lost, the setting of three poems from Chamber Music, Op. 10.
Nuvoletta (1947), a witty setting of less obscure words from Finnegans Wake, contains a waltz theme that anticipates Souvenirs. Barber may not have been as psychologically involved with Joyce as he was with Yeats. This attachment was more intellectual; Joyce’s writing is far more complex, and his personality and temperament were somewhat remote from Barber’s orientation. But he understood and responded to the poetic mixture of gaiety and sadness that permeates the Joycean canon and that is abundant in his own music.
Another work indebted to Joyce was also inspired by Finnegans Wake — Fadograph of a Yestern Scene (1971). In Joyce the words Barber quotes in his epigraph to the work refer to the sentence before. A complete reading of this passage (the first part of which Barber interestingly omits) has a religious connotation (according to Roland McHugh in Annotations to Finnegans Wake). It refers to the Eucharist whose substance is noewhoemoe (nowhere more) and is only a fadograph (faded photo) of a Yestern (the West, where the sun sets) scene. This gentle, autumnal music, a remembrance of things past, is a resigned acceptance of life’s illusions. It gives us a clue of what Barber was going through during his last years, both emotionally and philosophically.
Many American composers besides Barber have made important contributions to our art song literature — Griffes, Rorem, Hoiby, Thomson, Ives, Copland, Bernstein, et al. But Barber’s more than any of the others have become staples in the repertoire of concert singers. His love and understanding of the voice never diminished; it is the foundation of his lyricism. He was cradled in song from the beginning, and absorbed all the complexities of its essence from Sidney and Louise Homer. His own, never-realized singing career, and his symbiotic friendship with Menotti, another natural practitioner of vocal writing, augmented his instinctual gift. His discriminating literary taste, his proficiency with language, and his unending melodic resourcefulness contribute to making his songs so personal, so Barberesque.
If we study all the music Barber has written, an interesting fact becomes discernible. All the compositions he wrote before he was 30 — from the early songs to the pivotal work of his career, the Violin Concerto — give us a synoptic preview of his entire oeuvre. What makes Barber unique is that he discovered himself so early and that all that he added later — allowing for incremental technique devices and the maturing of compositional skills — is already in place.
Barber was always addicted to opera. He attempted writing one at 12, The Rose Tree, with a libretto of sorts written by the family cook. The texts of his song cycles are arranged in dramatic order. His opera preferences were eclectic — Monteverdi to Alban Berg, including one of his favorites, Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah. (Shades of Antony and Cleopatra!) He was enthusiastic about Richard Strauss, Puccini, Verdi — and of course, Menotti — and liked Wagner except for an overactive distaste for Parsifal ("Sickly chromaticism, hiding under an ironical masque of religion").
His Vanessa (1957), in spite of its subsequent unwarranted neglect, made history at the Metropolitan Opera, and was well received, even by the scholarly Paul Henry Lang, then critic of the New York Tribune. This work, with a libretto by Menotti, reveals a lot about the collaborators. Menotti, as he has often told, wrote the text not only for but about Barber. The elaborate menu that opens the opera is a humorous reference to Barber’s culinary addiction to fine food and vintage wine; the reading from Oedipus, his love for Greek literature and a glimpse at a daily event, reading aloud at Capricorn; the ice skating aria, Barber’s favorite sport; the church hymn at the end of Act I, Barber’s Protestantism; the Northern almost fairy-tale atmosphere, an acknowledged love letter to their beloved friend, the Gothic novelist Isak Dineson; the luxurious setting itself, Barber’s love of quietly opulent surroundings.
There are significances on a deeper personal level. Erica suggests the Nordic, self-contained, almost stoical temperament of Barber; Vanessa, the buoyant lover of life, taking life as it comes, the Mediterranean Menotti; the silent, moralistic Baroness, a matriarchal type both creators had to endure in West Chester.
The two men of the opera are facets of the dual personality of (perhaps) both creators of Vanessa. The doctor, a loving portrait of Barber’s father, is the decorous upright American patriarch. Anatol, the outsider in this well-defined, family-oriented world, is the intruder, the breaker of taboos — the artist who offers love freely without becoming enmeshed in its moral consequences. He is the worm at the core of the apple; through him and the attitudes of the other characters to him, the dominant theme of the work surfaces (the omnipresent theme of both creators, especially at that time) — the betrayal and destructiveness of love. Was this a prognostication of the rift of their own relationship?
Menotti has written that he had in mind Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (Barber’s favorite play) when he wrote Vanessa. It is obvious why the characters and symbolism of this play should appeal to the elegiac complicated Barber. And both men, approaching middle age when they composed the work, were constantly aware of the passing years. Time is an obvious symbol in Vanessa; Vanessa the solopsistic eternal adolescent refuses to admit she is no longer young and drapes all mirrors in black cloth. She can only love on a superficial, narcissistic level (Vanessa means butterfly). Her charade is tragic, and the disillusionless Erica knows it. It is really Erica’s opera. Maria Callas, who was first offered the role, refused because she said (understanding the libretto too well), she didn’t want to be upstaged by a younger woman. (Her first visit to the home of the collaborators was a great theatrical event in itself. Barber’s many allusions to it and his deadly enactment of the prima donna’s behavior, including a stellar part for her dog, was a great performance in his anecdotal repertoire.) The wonderful Eleanor Steber learned the part in a few weeks. Her high style portrayal of Vanessa is one of the legends of American opera.
The circumstances of the failure of Antony and Cleopatra have too often been repeated — the mechanical deficiencies of the Metropolitan Opera’s scenic capabilities, its excessive Cecil B. de Mille extravagant production, and the hostility of many critics (by no means all). But the problem was much more complicated. From the first rehearsal Barber was aware that all was not well at the Met. He and the scenic designer and director were thinking in different time zones. The flamboyant Zeffirelli wanted to put all of Egypt on the stage; the composer conceived the opera as an intimate and psychological study of autumnal love — an affair of two clashing world figures, aging, competitive, and amorous. Such discordant conceptions could never be harmonized. More disturbing was the fact that in the heady politics of the situation he was not backed up by the manager of the Met.
Barber resented having to write additional music for only scenic purposes, particularly battle music (a type of music he loathed). And he was upset that the architectural structure of the music was disturbed. His remarks during its preparation were typical: "The scenes would be great in Macy’s window," "Leontyne’s headdress is larger than the Pyramid. It could give the dear permanent brain damage," "The senators look like a football team after they’ve lost a game."
But the fiasco of course did have an effect on Barber. He was not prepared for or deserving of the vicious trouncing he got, but it did not destroy him. Although the opulent first night audience applauded enthusiastically, to Barber "The production had nothing to do with what I had imagined — goats, two hundred elephants!"
Barber was more hurt by the knowledge that the music of the opera he wrote was only barely decipherable in the babble of scenic activity than by the critics’ "predictable" restatement for the umpteenth time that he rejected current techniques. As he often said "Why should every opera today have to sound like Wozzeck?" To the end of his life he firmly believed that Antony and Cleopatra contained some of his finest music. Menotti also knew that the sadistic drubbing of the work was unwarranted and excessive. With his superb theatrical sense he helped Barber reshape the opera more in accordance with its original conception. This revised version was very successful when (directed by Menotti) it was first presented at the Juilliard School in 1975, and later in Spoleto and Chicago.
Menotti conceived "Album Leaves", an evening of short theatre pieces given at Spoleto in 1959. He wrote the librettos for two of them: Lukas Foss’s Introductions and Goodbyes and Barber’s A Hand of Bridge. This work is slight, but not superficial, a sophisticated example of an unduly neglected genre of cabaret — revue scenes — "minute operas" as Milhaud called them. The text is light and amusing, the characters are satirized not sanitized friends of the librettist and composer. The throwaway style of the score is relaxed, a somewhat artificial Barber — funny, worldly, jazzy. It is cool and bland, and indebted to Broadway and Hollywood, and Barber meant it to be. Its four ariettas delineate the inner thoughts of the four players, shedding light on the banality and tragedy of their lives.
A Hand of Bridge is an evening at home with the boys, a joke with murderous overtones. One of the favorite pastimes at Capricorn was playing games, particularly charades — sometimes playful, sometimes nasty and cruel. Barber often did not approve of these "group therapy sessions" and after a few stinging salvos went to bed.
Capricorn, snug in the hills of Mount Kisco, Westchester County, New York, was Barber’s only true home other than the one he was born in at West Chester, Pennsylvania. The coincidental topological conflation of the two locales was not lost on him. He said it "explains a lot about me," for Barber, in spite of his worldliness was "just a small town kid," who only felt comfortable in rural surroundings. He didn’t like New York, finding it "the hardest place in the world to write...you become an ornament in the life of New York."
The house itself was simple, elegantly furnished, filled with books, art works, pianos — one that belonged to Rachmaninoff was Barber’s prize possession — and manuscripts. Capricorn was actually two independent studios, one for each composer, connected by a central room for living and entertaining. The surrounding grounds were secluded and beautifully landscaped: one could walk and meditate without any disturbance.
That it was the home of two famous musicians was recognized by all the neighbors, except for a few uptight do-gooders who thought it was a den of iniquity. (This was 50 years ago, an eon before our age of more relaxed sexual attitudes.) Unquestionably with such a flux of creative talents and temperaments it was not the equivalent of Main Street America. Never boisterous or vulgar, Capricorn was the mecca of the art and intellectual world of Europe and America; to it came a legion of the great, the famous, the talented, and the rich; here they resolved or dissolved their amours and animosities. The two hosts were cordially hospitable to anyone who had something to offer that was new, different, and original.
The volatile, outgoing Menotti always wanted people around him; the reserved West Chesterian, often withdrawn, preferred less excitement. He could tolerate just so much theatricality before delivering one of his coruscating witticisms. But Barber was far from unfriendly or perpetually dour. He could be charming and most amusing, even if his stamina for fun and games was not as extensive as his mercurial friend’s. For a long time it was apparent that trouble was on the horizon. Menotti and Barber, despite their profound affection for each other, inhabited different planes of experience and responded to them in completely different emotional ways. These subtle disparities led to their eventual separation.
Capricorn represents the fullest years of the friendship of Barber and Menotti. It was the place where both composers conceived and wrote some of their finest works — Barber’s Medea, Andromache’s Farewell, Piano Sonata, Menotti’s Amahl, The Consul, The Saint of Bleecker Street.
For a long time it was apparent to close acquaintances of Menotti and Barber that the rupture of their relationship was finally unavoidable. Signs of its dissolution were evident for years and a lot of speculation and rude remarks were made about it. However their friendship was so intimate and complex no one has the right to probe into it. We can only speculate about what could have happened from their public statements, particularly Menotti’s. We are aware we are treading in murky and dangerous waters. Although it cannot be denied nor should it be that Menotti was always the central figure in Barber’s life, the cause of their separation was not due to any loss of affection for each other. It was simply that as Menotti became more enmeshed in an international operatic world, Barber could not be the only center of Menotti’s life.
They were alike and unlike in many ways; both were primarily musical-literary men who fundamentally responded to art (in all its mediums) in basically emotional ways. Barber was more subtle, and saw things always from a broad historical view. Menotti was more immediate and visceral, with both eyes always cocked to the stage. Each had a distinctive gift and style, although occasionally the styles overlapped. Barber, the more innovative of the two, had a sense of proportion and balance only a few composers ever achieve. Paradoxically he appeared on the surface more controlled but was more given to violent outbursts, although some of it was possibly calculated (Barber also had a Barrymore flair). More flamboyant and theatrical, Menotti often had to subdue some of the stormy emotions of the touchy and over-sensitive Barber. This turbulent aspect of their personalities is evident, of course, in the creative works of both composers. Too, the non-operatic Menotti is heir to the wit and clarity of Italian neo-classicism and the erotic mysticism of some aspects of Roman Catholicism. Barber had none of this; his elegance was of a different order, it stemmed from a mind almost French in its clarity and refinement. It is no wonder that Barber could claim "Poulenc was one of my few musical friends. I loved him deeply." Menotti was Italian and Spanish baroque; Barber was elegiac, controlled, compressed. Menotti has the advantage of being able to express himself via the artifacts of the stage; Barber had to rely on mainly musical means to reveal his complicated feelings.
Their friendship began at Curtis when they were in their teens. Menotti, the lonely boy from Italy, soon became a full-fledged member of the Barber family. "Johnny" and Sam were inseparable. Any American trait that Menotti ever acquired was implanted in West Chester. In return, Menotti continentalized Barber, who was internationally inclined and always felt as comfortable in Europe as in America. Menotti has always remained an Italian American and Barber always remained a Europeanized American. In the 1930s they travelled extensively throughout Europe; because they were both multi-lingual and immensely intellectually curious, they felt at home in any country. The zest of their Wanderjahre has the flavor of the 19th-century Grand Tour. But they were no wide-eyed sight-seers; they were perceptive, informed, well tailored vagabonds who explored all the colorful byways and remote backwoods of the country and enjoyed all the worldliness of the cities.
Beneath all the flummery of their salad days they were serious, dedicated artists. Barber managed to write the Overture to the School for Scandal, Music for a Scene from Shelley, the Cello Sonata, Dover Beach, and some of his now well-known songs. And they quickly learned how to mix business with pleasure and made international connections which bore fruit in later years. When the war came they settled in America, and finally at Capricorn in 1943.
As the years passed their lives became more complicated. Menotti’s career made him a world traveller; he founded the Spoleto Festival and added opera directorship to his accomplishments. The serious pragmatic Barber could not help but feel a real change slowly undermining their relationship. He was home-oriented, a product of a stable background; Menotti, a member of a large eccentric family, was now an international figure. Barber admitted feeling pangs of jealousy and thought that Menotti was ruined by Spoleto. Barber’s nature was not inclined to the theatrical high jinks and turbulent activities of Spoleto which Menotti reveled in. The festival more and more infringed not only on their relationship, but it invaded the privacy of Barber’s aristocratic reticence. Menotti has often quite candidly discussed in print their difficulties at this time.
As Menotti’s reputation grew his operatic ventures made him a peripatetic world traveller. He was seldom home. Barber was left with the burdens of the day-to-day problems and expenses of Capricorn. When it was sold in 1973 he was the one who was more deeply affected. He had lost his vital center, and never regained another. That Barber was more overwhelmed than Menotti when they finally separated does not mean that Menotti was remote or unfeeling, although his outward cavalier manner seemed to imply this to some of their friends. He had greater resiliency and outside distractions to help him over the rough times. The introspective Barber did not, and he was beset with other problems.
There are no villains in this sad and very human story, and such a friendship can never really be broken. In later years their lifestyles were certainly different, but until the end of Barber’s life he and Menotti were indissolubly committed to each other. Menotti can never forget his years with Barber, nor does he want to. Barber is buried in a country cemetery in West Chester. His grave, on a grassy knoll, overlooks a land of rural serenity. There is a space reserved for Menotti.
During the mid-1960s Barber was wounded by the turn of events, but not fatally. He retired for a few years to his chalet in Santa Christina, Italy. Here he reassessed his values and went through a period that could be called his Dark Night of the Soul. When he recouped his strength he returned to America and revised Antony and Cleopatra.
Barber’s music of the 1970s with the exception of The Lovers and Third Essay was more reflective and contemplative than it had been. But in nothing he wrote — Fadograph, the Fischer-Dieskau cycle, the Ballade for piano, and the Canzonetta from his unfinished oboe concerto — does he show any sign of morbidity or unhappiness. These beautifully crafted, resigned pieces are far removed from the funereal and other-worldly pieces Britten and Shostakovitch wrote when they, too, knew they had a limited time to live. The Third Essay (1978), his last major work, has all the vigor and imagination of its two companion pieces.
He rented a small New York apartment in the East 60s which had the authentic Barber look — simple but expensive, complete scores of composers from Schütz to the contemporary bound in Moroccan leather, shelves lined with books, a few modern paintings (including some of his temperas), comfortable chairs, a large sofa, a few personal knick-knacks and mementos, some photographs of family and friends, flowers, in short an aura of gracious living. But this was deceptive. He was going through a terrible time, battling depression, loneliness, alcoholism, creative difficulties. It was almost impossible for him to concentrate or be really interested in anything, or anybody.
He was a man of the country and it was heart rending to see him standing on the small terrace of his apartment wistfully looking beyond the highrise across the street. He was very noise conscious and was physically pained by the bustle of the traffic. One of his few consolations was that he liked to hear Benny Goodman, who lived above him, play the clarinet. They became friends.
How he managed to do anything at all during this time is a miracle; it indicates his basic inner strength and a steely refusal to capitulate to the demons within. With the help of his patient and Figaro-like housekeeper Valentin Herranz, he finally managed to be himself again.
Later he moved to an elegant, beautifully furnished apartment on Fifth Avenue facing Central Park. He would make a rueful point of telling you that the park was not country but "a bunch of trees surrounded by noise," and watching people manipulating toy boats on the lake — a fad at the time — was "tiresome and boring." He had always suffered from ennui; he was too intelligent not to. Now it was intensified.
Barber gave himself a party on his 68th birthday. He spent months in planning and preparing for it. That extraordinary evening was a consummate example of Old World formality and Barber’s consummate taste and flawless attention to detail. The food and decor were a work of art. All the friends and colleagues he admired and was attached to were invited. The guest list read like a Who’s Who of the musical and intellectual world. His look as he surveyed the beautiful room from a raised banquet table was unforgettable — a penetrating sad, resigned awareness; this was his farewell to the world of art that he loved. He knew he had an incurable cancer.
In Barber’s last years, he was attended to by Valentin who prepared his meals and saw to his material needs. And Charles Turner, his close friend for many years, at this time of physical and emotional crisis was a constant companion, on call 24 hours a day.
In the final phase of his illness, after he was brought home from a visit to Menotti’s estate in Scotland, Barber was surrounded and helped by his innumerable friends. It was not too difficult to love the real Barber.
Even in his very painful last weeks he retained remnants of his ironic wit and sly humor. It popped out unexpectedly. His talent for mimicry and acidity that deflated pomposity never diminished. Nor did his total addiction to Baskin and Robbins Rocky Road chocolate ice cream. His interest in soap opera was constant; he had to be kept informed of the daily activities of the characters in "As the World Turns."
Lying in a hospital bed with an oxygen mask over his face, he never lost his distinguished elegance, sometimes showing flickering signs of humor. Doctors and nurses (around the clock) adored him and were deeply moved when they heard of his death. Menotti had brought him back to his apartment so he could be in familiar surroundings. His life-long friend was there when he passed away on 23 January 1981.
Barber was indeed a complex man. He gave the appearance of being what he really was not. He was a supersophisticate, imperious, ironic, one who did not suffer fools gladly. He had high standards for himself and others. His heart was rarely on display, well concealed under his Roman patrician manner. But his heart was large, his wit hid his sensitivity, his melancholy was his response to the sadness of the world. The taste and refinement of the America that gave us a Samuel Barber is rapidly disappearing — but it is there in his music if we but listen.
Listen, it says, listen.
Once upon a time there was...
— Paul Wittke
© 1994 G. Schirmer, Inc.