BOOK REVIEW: SAMUEL BARBER: A Bio-Bibliography. By Don A. Hennessee. 404 pp. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

by Walter Simmons



SAMUEL BARBER: A Bio-Bibliography. By Don A. Hennessee. 404 pp. Westport, CT: Green­wood Press, 1985. $39.95.

Don A. Hennessee is variously described both as “author” and “compiler” of this book. The latter term is far more appropriate because there is no evidence of true “authorship” here: no discussion, elucidation, or analysis based on a study of the composer’s body of work; no attempt to distill essential thematic issues for the benefit of the less experienced listener; no effort to delve into biographical matters in order to isolate personal themes that might have some bearing on the composer’s work; no point of view whatever. This “bio-bibliography” is essen­tially a book written by a computer; the human contribution is limited to secretarial matters. We know that Mr. Hennessee is Librarian Emeritus at California State University, Long Beach, but for all one gleans from this book he could easily be no more than a research assistant who has spent hours collecting entries from the Reader’s Guide, without ever having heard a note of music.

The body of the book comprises:

  1. Biography—10 pages
  2. Works and Performances (a complete list of works, with information on premieres and other “selected” performances)—70 pages
  3. Discography—47 pages
  4. Bibliography (excerpts from criticism concerning Barber and his music)—236 pages.

The brief biography, a model of timidity and lack of conviction, begins, “There is no way to predict the place of Samuel Barber in American music fifty or one hundred years from now.” (How’s that for an opener? We’re not taking any chances.) “It is possible that he may be completely forgotten.” (Anything is possible. Can’t go wrong there.) “More likely, however, he will be remembered by scholars and musicians as a composer with integrity, and his works will continue to be performed, some retaining their places in the repertoire of orchestras, opera companies, dance and ballet troupes, and soloists.” (Not too rash to assume, I suppose, that some of his works will continue to be performed, considering that about half are already in the standard repertoire. This really draws you in, doesn’t it?) Ten pages later, Hennessee concludes, “Three years after his death his music still appears frequently on programs from coast to coast and abroad. What is the secret? Perhaps it is a very simple one: to the average concert-goer, his music is listenable, it has beauty and can be understood. We can still be moved by Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and probably Samuel Barber would ask no more than this.” (Than what? That we can still be moved by Knoxville? He thinks that’s all Barber would ask? He’s got to be kidding!) These feeble platitudes encase a biographical sketch that contains nothing not al­ready known or easily accessible to anyone with enough interest in Samuel Barber to pick up the book in the first place. I will make the bold assumption that Mr. Hennessee knows some­thing about Barber’s music and likes it, because the money in writing books about modern composers is too small to motivate anyone. But one error—the attribution of The Lovers to 1979 (instead of 1971) and the consequent misplacement of it in the biographical overview—suggests that Mr. Hennessee has a rather tenuous grasp of the basic facts.

The Works and Performances section and the Discography do serve some modest but useful purposes, but, aside from the premieres, no criteria are given for the inclusion of “se­lected other performances.” The discography inevitably has its share of minor errors and omis­sions. Some entries are described in great detail, with duration, author of program notes, date of recording, etc., while others are given with very little information—even currently or recently available discs that are easy to find. Not terribly important, perhaps, but annoying nevertheless.

Obviously, the book’s major contribution is the compendium of critical comments. (Those of us who can enjoy sitting and reading music reviews for hours on end can appreciate something like this, but I suspect it is a specialized taste.) Again, the compilation is not “complete,” by any means; yet an awful lot of entries are included that offer absolutely nothing of any value or use to anyone whatsoever. It seems to me that “complete” should mean complete and that “selected” should mean selected for potential value to reader, researcher, etc. What is the value of an entry like, “For Barber’s Anthony O’Daly, Mr. Fountain let his group sing out dramatically.”? That is an entire entry. Or one that states, simply, “The program was featured principally by the music of Samuel Barber.” (Quite a sentence, isn’t it?) Again, one searches for evidence of an active intelligence behind all this. The entries in this section are grouped according to particular works. Then, within each group the entries are presented alphabetically, according to the author’s name. If someone wanted to read the critical reactions to a work like, say, Barber’s cello sonata, over the 50 years or so since it was composed (probably the type of item of curiosity which this book is most suited to satisfy), wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to present those critical comments chronologically, so that the reader might quickly sense the ef­fect of the passage of time and greater familiarity? But instead, because the entries are listed alphabetically, a 1958 entry follows a 1974 entry which follows a 1940 entry, etc. The reviews of the original version of Antony and Cleopatra are mixed with the reviews of the revised ver­sion, so that the marked change in critical reaction to the two versions is concealed. Or, a 1976 entry follows a 1980 entry by the same writer because the entries by a single writer are alpha­betized by title, preventing the reader from gaining a sense of a critic’s changing position over time. After all, in the case of a veteran like Irving Kolodin, for example, this is another point of interest. In lieu of a more useful organization, however, there is a busy cross-reference system that connects every work to every disc to every review excerpt—very neat, but not that necessary, I think. There are some reviews from foreign countries, especially England, but very few from elsewhere; but we know that Barber’s music has been played abroad frequently, including in Russia. It would be interesting to see what critics in other countries had to say. Reading through the review excerpts does give one quite a few glimpses of critical stupidity: the consis­tent reference to “serial procedures” in some of Barber’s music, for example. One would expect most critics to know that the use of a theme containing all 12 notes is not a “serial procedure.” One writer even talks about Barber’s use of “post-Webern” techniques. Unbelievable! We are also made aware of some nice examples of plagiarism from one Ph.D. dissertation to another. One more gripe—for some reason I can’t begin to fathom, the entity that “processed” all this material consistently changed the word “harmonies” to “harmonics”—dozens of times. Why? The two words mean very different things.

I don’t mean to be gunning down Mr. Hennessee here. It’s just that this is a non-book, the product of an age in which data-processing has become a major virtuoso activity and in which the exercise of knowledge, intelligence, and thoughtful judgment as means of providing com­municative insight have become increasingly obsolete. The best that can be said for this “bio­bibliography” is that it may be a time-saver for someone who one day wants to write a book about Samuel Barber.