If you just read that title and thought, “Who?!,” I’m happy to tell you. Samuel Barber was an American composer, born on March 9, 1910. I happened to hear about his special 2010 milestone on the radio, tuning in on the very day itself that he would have been 100. He died in 1981, and unfortunately he didn’t live long enough to see a resurgence of interest in music written in his neo-Romantic style.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Platoon and watched the credits, you’ve heard Barber’s most famous piece. Adagio for Strings was premiered by none other than Arturo Toscanini, and it was played at many prominent funerals, including those of FDR, Albert Einstein, and Princess Grace of Monaco.
The Adagio was based on the slow movement of Barber’s only String Quartet, Op. 11. I once heard the Emerson String Quartet play the entire piece in concert at Spivey Hall, and I was very moved by the intimacy of this music in its original context. DCPL owns a Bernstein/New York Philharmonic recording of the Adagio in its most well-known form for string orchestra. It’s an interpretation which wrings every ounce of sadness and resignation out of each bar – just the kind of thing Bernstein did best. As both a Barber admirer and a Bernstein addict, I love it. (One more birthday for your library “buck”: the Bernstein recording also includes a piece by William Schumann, who would have been 100 in 2010.)
If you like the Adagio, you absolutely must hear his Violin Concerto. This piece is probably Barber’s most popular concerto. I’d venture to guess it gets heard more often than either the cello or piano concerto, even though they’re fine pieces too. The melodies in most of the Violin Concerto are sweet, wistful, and very Romantic. The last movement is a whirlwind, with the notes flying out of the violin at top speed, and the orchestra egging it on all the way. It’s very exciting, and the first violinist to examine it, Iso Briselli, declared it unplayable.
Don’t feel too bad for Barber; other famous concertos, including Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, initially met the same reaction from those for whom they were written. Luckily, DCPL has more than one of the recording of the Barber, and if you check out the Bernstein mentioned above, the Concerto is on that CD too.
How about an Atlanta connection to Samuel Barber? Our former, beloved Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Shaw recorded a choral work by Barber, Prayers of Kierkegaard, with the Orchestra and Chorus back in 1997. It reveals its musical secrets not quite as immediately as the other two works, but it’s also well worth hearing.
Check out some of these, and enjoy some great music!