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Classical 101

Samuel Barber Centennial: 3 Songs

THREE AUDIO PIECES, ALL MUSIC Samuel Osborne Barber II was born on March 9, 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His mother's sister was the great contralto Louise Homer. Barber entered the Curtis Institute in 1924. He studied piano with Isabelle Vengerova, voice with Emilio de Gorgoza and composition with Rosario Scalero. The influence of Louise Homer and her husband, composer Sidney Homer had on their young nephew cannot be overestimated. Barber began writing sons at 15,  one year after he entered the Curtis Institute. A Slumber Song of the Madonna (poet: Alfred Noyes) was published in 1925 and was introduced by Louise Homer and included on her recital programs for several years. While at Curtis, Barber, who himself had a fine voice and often programmed his own songs, was further inspired by the singing of his classmate Rose Bampton (1907-2007) who went on to have an important career at the Metropolitan.  Bampton introduced several of Barber's first songs, and sang the premiere of Dover Beach. Barber's years of studying piano, and his life long study of Bach reinforced his natural gifts for polyphony and for word painting, finding the appropriate the color in his music most appropriate to the words he chose to set. And what words! Young Sam must have loved poetry a great deal from a young age: James Joyce, James Stephens, A.E. Housman and Gerard Manley Hopkins .  A recent 2 cd collection on DGG, The Complete Songs of Samuel Barber includes forty-seven songs written between 1925 and 1972. Here are three of my favorites: A Nun Takes the Veil. The poet is Gerard Manley Hopkins. The song dates from 1837, and is part of the collection Four Songs, Op. 13. We hear it sung by Marilyn Horne, with Martin Katz at the piano Barber uses a quasi-recitative, almost declamatory style for this. I'd call this daring for a young composer, but clearly he wanted primacy to go to Hopkins's words: "I have desired to go/Where springs not fail,/To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail/And a few lilies blow. And I have asked to be/Where no storms come,/Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,/And out of the swing of the sea. Here's a poem that needs a lighter touch mixed with a bit of reverence. It does not need any false romanticism or 'extra' music. It is music. [audio:a-nun-takes-the-veil.mp3] Sure on This Shining Night is a poem by James Agee set by Barber in 1938 and included in his Opus 10. Writer Calum MacDonald calls this one of Agee's "most perfect and ecstatic lyrics." Sure on this shining night/Of starmade shadows round/Kindness much watch for me/This side the ground. Gerald Finley is accompanied by Julius Drake: [audio:sure-shining.mp3] Fast forward ten years. Barber has had sensational success with the Adagio for Strings. He writes  Medea for Martha Graham (she called it "Cave of the Heart"). Barber's music continues to be championed by Toscanini and Koussevitzky. He's riding high. In 1947, he sets a whimsical text by James Joyce, an episode from Finnegan's Wake for his friend, every one's favorite American soprano in 1947, Eleanor Steber. The delightful Nuvoletta ("in her lightdress, spun of sisteen shimmers...") sung by Eleanor Steber with Edwin Biltcliffe at the piano [audio:nuvoletta.mp3] Still to come as we commemorate Barber's centennial by enjoying some of his vocal music: Knoxville, Summer of 1915 and Antony and Cleopatra.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.