Book Reviews. Samuel Barber Remembered: A Centenary Tribute. Ed., P. Dickinson. The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. By Thomas Larson.

by Walter Simmons


SAMUEL BARBER REMEMBERED: A Centenary Tribute. Edited by Peter Dickinson. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2010. 198 pp. $49.95.

THE SADDEST MUSIC EVER WRITTEN: The Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. By Thomas Larson. New York: Pegasus Books, 2010. 262 pp. $26.95.

Until recently the published scholarship on Samuel Barber was extremely limited. An important gap was filled by the publication of Barbara Heyman’s Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music (Oxford University Press, 1992). Heyman presented a richly researched, painstakingly detailed account of Barber’s life, as well as a thoroughly documented survey of his works. Yet missing from this large volume was a palpable sense of Barber as a person, and, arguably more important, a critical assessment of his body of work. I attempted to provide the latter in the chapter on Barber in my book Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (Scarecrow Press, 2004). But now, in commemoration of the composer’s centennial this year, two new books have appeared that fill in many of the gaps that have remained. I daresay that today the reader who seeks a comprehensive understanding of Samuel Barber, the man and the composer, can derive just that from these four books, which complement each other with relatively little overlap.
Peter Dickinson is an English musicologist who has written a great deal about American composers and their music. Samuel Barber Remembered is built around a series of interviews that Dickinson conducted for the BBC, in preparing a memorial tribute, shortly after the composer’s death in 1981. Dickinson interviewed Barber’s closest friends, other American composers whose careers ran parallel to his, as well as colleagues who worked closely with him in other capacities. These interviews are supplemented by two chapters written by Dickinson himself: one detailing Barber’s formative years, enriched by reminiscences of those—not necessarily musicians—who knew him as a youth in suburban Philadelphia; the other discussing the reception of his music in England (which appeared essentially to parallel the attitudinal shifts toward his music in the United States). There are also transcripts of three of the few interviews granted by Barber himself: one done in 1949 by James Fassett, a well-known commentator and host for CBS Radio during the middle decades of the 20th century; one from 1978 with Robert Sherman, still active as a radio producer in New York; and one considered to be the composer’s last interview, by the distinguished New York Times critic Allan Kozinn in 1979, when Barber was already facing his final illness. This interview was published in High Fidelity shortly after his death.
The cumulative impact of all these interviews and essays reveals a significant insight into Barber’s personality and character. True, those who are familiar with his body of work, and with the various program notes that have accompanied performances and recordings of his music, are not likely to be surprised by the picture that emerges. But those many listeners who have heard only a handful of his works, perhaps only recently, and have not been reading about him for years, and wish to know more, will find this volume enormously illuminating. One reads the depiction of a hypersensitive, rather shy, and somewhat melancholy individual, born into a highly cultivated—almost aristocratic—family that nurtured his remarkable talent from the time of its early manifestation. With an aunt who was an internationally acclaimed opera star, and whose husband was a respected composer himself, Barber was given every advantage, including access to some of the most influential figures in the music world. Demonstrating as early as his teen years an ability to charm and ingratiate potential patrons and others in positions of influence, he achieved national recognition by the time he was in his mid 20s. For the next 25 years his works were championed by the foremost performers of the time, even by those—such as Arturo Toscanini and Vladimir Horowitz—who had little interest in modern music in general. Counseled by his uncle to remain true to his inner voice regardless of changing fashions, he was not by nature aggressively contentious or “pushy,” and simply disregarded the various modernist trends that were germinating around him and came to dominate the new music scene during the 1960s and 70s. Following his uncle’s advice, he treated his compositions as vehicles for his inner emotional life, and by so doing found resonance among a large portion of the cultivated musical public, although many of his colleagues were contemptuous of the “old-fashioned” language he embraced, and the apparent ease with which he attained such success. Yet like most composers who have become identified with a single work that seems to pre-empt the rest of their outputs, Barber came to detest the ubiquitous Adagio. As a defense against the harsh realities of a highly competitive field, he developed a somewhat “snobbish,” condescending manner and a sharp wit that could be quite cutting toward those who offended or challenged him. However, the virtually untrammeled acclaim he achieved during his 20s, 30s, and 40s did not prepare him for some of the failures and disappointments that occurred later on. Chief among them was the international public humiliation he faced when the opera he had composed for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at New York’s Lincoln Center was roundly condemned by the critics; the gradual dissolution during the 1960s of the intimate relationship he had shared with Gian Carlo Menotti from the time of their mid-teens; and the relinquishment during the early 1970s of the handsome estate they had inhabited together for some thirty years. Devastated by these profound defeats, Barber’s creativity diminished as he sank into the alcoholism and depression of his final years. A tone of whiny self-pity emerges from the final interview with Allan Kozinn.
Of course, most revealing are the interviews with Menotti himself, as well as the one with Charles Turner, a close friend for many years. But fascinating in other ways are the interviews with composers Aaron Copland, William Schuman, and Virgil Thomson, which really reflect more about them than about Barber. Most gracious is Schuman, who, in his “musical statesman” persona, provides the perspective of a respected colleague. On the other hand, Copland emphasizes that he and Barber traveled in different circles, and acknowledges only limited familiarity with his body of work. Without expressing explicit disdain, he repeatedly describes Barber as “well settled,” juxtaposing his lack of interest in “trying to add a new page to the history of music” against his own alignment with “the far-out people in New York.” Referring to their earlier days, he recalled, “He wasn’t carrying out what you would have thought a young composer would have wanted to do … He wasn’t ambitious to strike out on new paths, make a fuss, and upset audiences.” Most remarkable is the attitude of Virgil Thomson, who claims familiarity with only a handful of Barber’s works. His comments are surprisingly snide, petulant, and cynical, crediting Barber in only the most begrudging terms. (“I think that his idea of a successful musical work .. was something that could be played … for the subscription public of the Philadelphia Orchestra.”) Asked—as were many of the interviewees—about the “meaning” of the famous Adagio, he characterized it as “a detailed love scene, … [with] an awful lot of rubbing around!” while admitting that he had never even heard the full string quartet from which the Adagio was extracted.
Thomas Larson’s is a very different sort of study and a most unusual book. Its initial stimulus seems to have been a “contest” presented by the BBC, inviting submissions for the “world’s saddest music.” Evidently, Barber’s Adagio won by a landslide. Younger readers may not be aware of the role that this music has played over the years outside the concert hall. The Adagio was performed (or played on recording) in response to the deaths of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Princess Grace of Monaco, Gian Carlo Menotti, the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, the victims of 9/11, and the victims of the tsunami in Haiti. It was used in such films as The Elephant Man, Platoon, Lorenzo’s Oil,El Norte, and others. It has even been used parodistically on TV shows such as South ParkThe Simpsons, and Seinfeld. So Larson—a general writer, rather than a musicologist—has undertaken a wide-ranging analysis and commentary on this single work. Not only does his discussion include a detailed analysis of the Adagio itself, a biographical overview of the composer, and a history of the Adagio’s role as “America’s quintessential elegy,” “the Pietà of music,” “among the most moving expressions of grief in any art,” which “embodies Barber’s melancholia more completely than any of his other compositions.” (One wonders how Larson reacts to Virgil Thomson’s interpretation, noted above.) He goes on to speculate about the possible significance of Barber’s homosexuality on the expressive content of the work, and about Barber’s place in American gay culture of the time. Larson also discusses the role played by the Adagio in his own life, not to mention the hypothesized roles it may have played in his own parents’ lives. It even includes a thoughtful discussion of the Adagio’s place within American culture and its relationship to the American character. (Those readers who objected when I dared to inject a social comment or two into an opera review a few years ago are not likely to appreciate the free-wheeling breadth of Larson’s speculations.)
I must admit that early in the book I was put off by some infelicitous writing and a few musical gaffes that identify Larson as an “amateur,” as well as by the way he jumps around back and forth from one perspective to another. I also—as will a number of readers of this magazine, I suspect—found myself thinking of other contenders for the “saddest music” distinction that were overlooked. (In addition to my own idiosyncratic selections, the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique”—surely a worthy contender for the title—is never even mentioned.) However, I gradually became increasingly sympathetic to Larson’s thinking and respectful of the challenge he had set for himself. I was also impressed by his citation of the importance of the late cantata, The Lovers, a masterpiece that has yet to be recognized, and which disproves the often-encountered assertion that Barber composed nothing of value after Antony and Cleopatra. By the end, when he discusses America’s attitude toward grief, and presents the Adagio as representing a different view of America from Copland’s equally ubiquitous Fanfare for the Common Man, I felt deeply moved. “The power of positive thinking is also the power of denial, which cancels the need to mourn, a feeling common with the generation after that of the Second World War…. After the war and with a booming economy, the somber mood quickly fell out of favor. Since 1945, American mourning has too often been ‘lite’…. Hint at, but avoid true grief. Don’t get maudlin either. We’ve got the weather and the sports on tap. The Copland-Barber divide reminds us how precisely sculpted the emotional content of our culture is….” Whether or not one thinks one agrees with his conclusions, Larson leaves us with much to reflect upon. As personal as it may be, this book is as important and valuable to a deep understanding of Samuel Barber as are the other studies cited earlier.