Saturday, September 18, 2010

Samuel Barber. Outstanding Pennsylvanians 5

Early in the 20th century a nine-year-old boy from West Chester outlined his hopes for his career in a letter he sent to his mother. "I was meant to be a composer and will be I am sure..." he told her. "Don't ask me to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football."
His mother didn't. In fact, Samuel Barber grew up in a family of classical music lovers, and more--his aunt Louise Homer was a famous singer at the Metropolitan Opera, his uncle Sidney Homer was a composer of concert songs. His mother played the piano; and it seems likely that his doctor father at least permitted himself to be borne along to concerts and recitals.
So when young Samuel expressed an interest in writing symphonies, operas, and the like, it is safe to say he was not locked in the closet under the stairs, like Harry Potter. He was encouraged instead; and he thrived under that encouragement. He became, in fact, one of America's greatest musicians and composers, although not as famous as, say, Leonard Bernstein or Aaron Copland.
He was born in 1910, which means this year would be the centenary of his birth. Although he died in 1981, and thus did not live to see the celebration, music lovers and musicians are having some major parties without him.
(One wonders whether he would be fully appreciative. His last major work was the opera "Antony and Cleopatra", which was commissioned for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York City. For--probably--a variety of reasons, it failed. He spent the rest of his life embittered, and doing very little composing. Perhaps he would be a little consoled if he could know that his other important opera, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Vanessa", is receiving more performances now than it had been earlier.)
Don't like opera or symphonies? Chances are you still have heard music by Barber--namely, the serene and melancholy "Adagio For Strings", adapted from an early string quartet by him. It was played at the funerals of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and many other times and places as well . The "Agnus Dei" section of the Roman Catholic Mass has been sung by choirs to this music. You may also have heard it in churches of other denominations, or on the radio or television. It's around.
Want to hear some Barber right now? I can't give you exact urls or anything; but if you will google "Samuel Barber" you will find links to some of his music, which you can listen to for free. I myself just listened to his wonderful, lyrical violin concerto, with its incredibly demanding final movement. There were some recordings of the "Adagio for Strings" there, too.
Go and enjoy.

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