Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

                Summer Music for Wind Quintet, Op. 31 (1956)

                Adagio from String Quartet, Op. 11 (1936)


Summer Music for Wind Quintet, Op. 31 (1956)

Barber"While I’m writing for words, then I immerse myself in those words, and I let the music flow out of them. When I write an abstract piano sonata or a concerto, I write what I feel. I’m not a self-conscious composer. It is said I have no style at all, but that doesn’t matter. I just go on doing, as they say, my thing. I believe this takes a certain courage." (Samuel Barber - 1971)

Barber displayed musical ability at an early age, composing music at age 7 , and playing organ at church services by age 12. He received his musical training at the Curtis Institute. His compositions earned him many awards and scholarships, among them two Pulitzer prizes for music: one, in 1958 for his opera Vanessa, and, one in 1962 for his Piano Concerto. Barber was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to write a full scale opera for the opening of its new opera house in 1966. The opera, Antony and Cleopatra, adapted from Shakespeare by Franco Zefferelli, was a failure with both critics and the public. However the blame for this cannot be placed solely on Barber’s music. The consensus was that the failure was due more to the production, designed and directed by Zefferelli. Desmond Shawe-Taylor wrote that "throughout the evening there was a recurrent impression that Barber’s music, rich in substance and sometimes very engaging, was being submerged beneath the glitter and complexity of a spectacle." And so, it seems that what was once considered a fault, has been turned to a virtue by the current producers and composers of musical theatre.

Unquestionably, the most popular and well known of Barber’s compositions is the Adagio for Strings (1936). It was originally a movement from a string quartet. In its string orchestra version, it was championed by Toscanini, probably one of the only pieces of contemporary music he felt inclined to champion. This work was recently again heard by millions as the haunting theme in the movie, Platoon.

Barber’s musical style has been called neo-romantic; essentially lyric and dramatic, utilizing the harmonic language of the late 19th century. Like Poulenc, he was often at his best in writing for voice, and vocal music plays an important part in his catalogue of works. Richard Jackson writes: "Barber’s fondness for romantic fullness and lyricism combined with classical procedures places him in a position within his era somewhat similar to Brahms in his. Also, neither Barber nor Brahms was known as an innovator and both produced works of substance and beauty with a distinct personal stamp."

Unlike Brahms, chamber music plays a small part in Barber’s output. The single movement summer music is his only excursion into the realm of the wind quintet. It was written and premiered in Detroit in 1956. It has been described as "neo-impressionist" and is worlds away from the "Serialism" of Schoenberg and the "post-Webern Serialism" which was being embraced by so many composers in the USA and Europe during the 1950’s.

1991-92 Season, Program II, Sunday December 15, 1991

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According to the thinkers of the East, there are five different intoxications: of beauty, youth and strength; then the intoxication of wealth; the third is power, command, the power of ruling; and there is the fourth intoxication, which is the intoxication of learning, of knowledge. But all these four intoxications fade away just like stars before the sun in the presence of the intoxication of music. The reason is that it touches that deepest part of manís being. Music reaches farther than any other impression from the external world can reach. And the beauty of music is that it is both the source of creation and the means of absorbing it. In other words, by music was the world created, and by music it is withdrawn again into the source which has created it.

Hazrat Inayat Khan

Samuel Barber (1910 Ė 1981)

Adagio from String Quartet, Op. 11 (1936)

While we are not in the habit of dismembering musical works for the purposes of presenting them on a program, we have done so this time. The victim is Barberís String Quartet, Op. 11.

This Quartet was written in Europe by the young American composer; the result of his having received the American Prix de Rome, and a Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship. In December of 1936, the Quartet received its premiere performance in Rome by the Pro Arte String Quartet. Though the quartet consists of two movements with a very short coda, it is in the transcription for string orchestra that the second movement of the quartet (Molto adagio), has become Barberís most familiar and popular work; the Adagio for Strings (1938). (It was probably wise of him to call it just "Adagio" instead of "Molto Adagio for Strings"). The transcription of the quartet movement was commissioned from the composer by none other than Arturo Toscanini, then conductor of the NBC Orchestra, and no "friend" of contemporary music. Forty years later, this haunting Baroque-like adagio was used to great effect in writer/director Oliver Stoneís film based on his first-hand combat experiences in Viet Nam; Platoon (1986).

1999-2000 Season, Program V , Sunday June 4, 2000

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All original text on this page copyright 2000  by Joseph Way