About this Recording
8.559135 - BARBER: Capricorn Concerto / A Hand of Bridge / Canzonetta / Intermezzo
English  German 

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Capricorn Concerto • A Hand of Bridge • Intermezzo from Vanessa

Born and raised in Westchester, an upscale suburb of New York City, in 1910, Samuel Barber was something of a phenomenon, a true musical prodigy. He studied somewhat cursorily with his uncle, the composer Sidney Homer, but, even at a precociously early age, Barber was a natural born musician: he could sing beautifully, play the piano, and began composing when he was eight years old, a year after he began to play the pipe organ with enough proficiency to accompany services. The year was 1918, and his opus one was, appropriately enough, War Song, for solo piano, a piece favoured by a Bach-style cross relation dissonance of a C sharp on a C natural, the sort of harmonic “crunch” which would eventually become a benchmark of Barber’s style.

When eventually Barber enrolled in the Curtis Institute, where he was a member of the founding class, he was the single best and brightest student; his skills at the piano were remarkable, his singing voice angelic and rich (a sombre baritone which has been captured on record singing his own Dover Beach) and his compositions downright sophisticated. His classmates jokingly referred to the “three B’s” of classical music: Bach, Beethoven and Barber. His refined technique and very personal style would go on to make him one of the most important composers of his day, even as high modernism took hold not only of the academies (all seemed either to follow Boulez or rue the consequences in those chaotic times) but of the concert platform as well. Barber, though his music was much beloved (and not just the Adagio for Strings), would bear the mantle of recherché, slightly backwards. The end of his life was rather sad, when, after the failure on a grand scale of his opera Antony and Cleopatra (composed to open the new Metropolitan Opera house, and riddled with enough disasters to make for interesting reading), Barber all but disappeared, composing little save a few songs and dying more sad and overlooked than a genius of his stature deserved.

During World War II, Barber served in the military, though his musical talent was well known; he was even called, by Newsweek, “…the most outstanding American serious composer in uniform”, and he had several fellow officers lobbying on his behalf that he be granted a post which allowed him more space to work He wanted nothing more than to return to his routine of composition, and was ultimately granted a more permissive line of service which enabled him to return to his longtime companion Gian-Carlo Menotti, whom he met in his Curtis days, and to Capricorn, his wonderful hearth and home, so named for the fantastic light it got during the winter. It was there and then he wrote his Capricorn Concerto, scored for the same instruments as Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 2, solo trumpet, oboe, flute, with an accompanying string complement.

The music itself is something of a departure for Barber, bandying between playful, insistent baroque textures and a more lyrical, more melodically driven composition, though Barber is still Barber, a melodist and a modernist alike. Allegedly each member of the Capricorn household, Barber, Menotti, and Chip, Menotti’s adopted son, is represented with their own individual theme, thematically depicting each of their personalities. The first movement flits between two tempi, Allegro (fast) and Andante con moto (walking speed, but with motion), and is cast in a rondo form, with development being the driving force, Barber’s spotless compositional technique on full display. The second movement is playful, save for one tranquil passage, favoured by a boisterous line for plucked viola, while the final movement, Barber’s most direct homage to Bach, features a trumpet fanfare in its spirited midst.

In 1958 Menotti founded the still-extant Spoleto festival, an annual event taking place in his home country of Italy, and liked to present, Cabaret style, a programme called Album Leaves, wherein artists of varying stripes presented short pieces (or poems or plays) composed for the occasion, the most notable of which is Barber’s A Hand of Bridge, a nine minute bitchy witty “opera” with a libretto by Menotti. In this short piece, scored for four soloists and chamber orchestra, are biographical references to members of the Barber-Menotti intimate circle, a trick Menotti employs in many of his libretti. The story is a quick psychodrama, with the four characters both playing bridge with one another and playing out, in their minds, what they think of the others at the table. Barber cleverly uses dry recitative style to set the literal moments of card-play, pitting them against lusher, quasi-arias to outline their inner thoughts. Their friends Chuck Turner, Thomas Schippers, and Christopher, Barber’s nephew, do not escape the knife of the satire, and Barber, in his most vulgar mode, does not shy away from “jazzy” swung rhythms or overly psychological music, all demanded by the short but cutting drama.

In the last years of his life, Barber went reclusive, hiding out in his Upper East Side apartment, writing small pieces for nobody in particular, his relationship with Menotti long a thing of the past, his opera a colossal disaster, and his orchestral pieces getting less and less play. Though commissions were offered, he was reluctant to accept, not wanting to bind himself to anything, and more than likely sick of the rat race of the day. But he did manage to write some wonderful pieces simply for the joy of composing, including the subdued Mutations from Bach (sometimes called Meditations on a theme from Bach), a sombre work for four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba and timpani. Here he pays homage to a composer to whom he always felt very close: the plainsong Christ, thou lamb of God is played four times, in four different versions from history, presented chronologically. The earliest is a harmonization, which Barber, of course, scored for this brass ensemble, from 1604 by Joachim Decker, the second is Bach’s, taken from Cantata 23, followed by a version Bach reworked into a complex fugue in an organ prelude, the third is Barber’s own, making use of a muted trumpet, and the final returns to Decker’s own. The piece was not intended to be for any group, occasion, or specific performance. Rather was it something that no doubt brewed in Barber’s head for some time, a tribute, at the end of his life, to his favourite composer.

The Metropolitan Opera in New York City had been after Barber for some time to make a big opera for their company, but for various reasons (mostly unsuitable libretti) he declined. When he accepted, he wanted to make (with Menotti) a truly “American” work, but settled on something a little more European—a wholly original work called Vanessa. The story itself, of a woman whose lover returns to her snowy abode after years of absence and then promptly falls in love with her daughter, is tonally rooted in Isak Dennisen’s Seven Gothic Tales, but it was Menotti and Barber who collectively dreamed it up. At the height of the pathosridden action in the third (and final) act of Vanessa lies the intermezzo – a plangent-yet-energetic orchestral interlude, perhaps depicting the passage of the two weeks that happens between the preceding and following scenes. In context, it depicts Vanessa, the elder, spurned woman; as an orchestral extract, it is haunting and gorgeous, tense and easygoing, as beautiful an orchestral fantasia as Barber ever wrote.

In the years following Barber’s catastrophic opera Antony and Cleopatra, his second commission from the Metropolitan Opera, Barber was more of a reluctant composer. He sank into a depression, into an alcoholic despair, only rising sporadically to write a piece. One of these, Fadograph of a Yestern Scene, is a singlepanelled orchestral work. The title comes from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, one of Barber’s favourite books, but the music comes more out of Debussy than any of his other works, slow, impressionistic washes of sound, large forces yet a spare texture. The Pittsburgh Symphony commissioned it, and it was the last orchestral work of any scope Barber wrote.

As Barber was dying, he was trying to complete a concerto for oboe and orchestra, requested from him by Harold Gomberg, who played in the New York Philharmonic. Originally Barber envisioned a multimovement work, but as he knew he would not live to finish it, he settled on a single movement, a Canzonetta—and he did not quite live even to finish this; Charles Turner, Barber’s only student, took up the task of completing it. “In its limited way”, writes Barbara Heyman, Barber’s biographer, “the Canzonetta offers an appropriate elegy to the conclusion of Barber’s career”. The tonality of the work embraces every device Barber loved, from late Romanticism to the more astringent modernist sounds, and his “vocal” writing for the oboe betrays his deep, lifelong affinity for the voice. This final work is almost a winnowing down of Barber’s total musical self, a beautiful, intimate, quiet final offering.

Daniel Felsenfeld


Close the window