SAMUEL BARBER: A Once-Suppressed Symphony, Three Essays, and Other Orchestral Works

by Walter Simmons



With the music of Samuel Barber receiving a great deal of attention these days, the appearance of his once-suppressed Symphony No. 2, in its first recording in nearly four decades, is sure to generate wide interest. The work was composed in 1944, at a time when Barber, only in his mid-thirties, was internationally acclaimed as one of America’s most distinguished composers. As his contribution to the wartime effort, Barber was serving as corporal in the Army Air Force, enjoying the privilege of fulfilling his patriotic duty by writing music that would unify the nation in the spirit of victory. Looming as precedent along these lines was Dmitri Shostakovich, whose “Leningrad” Symphony had become such a symbol of the Allied struggle that his name had virtually become a household word. Stories circulated describing how the Army, in an unprecedented effort to nurture Barber’s creativity, flew him around the country from airfield to airfield, so as to inspire within him the appropriate sentiments.

Originally entitled Symphony Dedicated to the Army Air Forces, the work proved to be the most ambitious product of Barber’s wartime experience and its premiere, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky, was as highly publicized as the circumstances surrounding its composition. The orchestration called for an “electronic tone generator.” especially designed for the purpose by Bell Labs, and listeners attempted to hear in the work representations of air-raids, planes taking off and the like, although, from the beginning, Barber denied any descriptive or programmatic intentions. The critical reception was generally quite favorable and the work received a number of subsequent performances and broadcasts, in the U.S. and abroad.

Some ambivalence on the composer’s part concerning the symphony was suggested by the appearance in 1947 of a revised version, in which the “tone generator” was replaced by conventional instrumentation and the title changed simply to Symphony No. 2. A few years later, Barber conducted a recording of the work in England (London LL-1328) — its only recording until now.

Evidently, during the following decade the work’s popularity lagged behind that of the composer’s earlier successes. Most likely, this is attributable to the general withdrawal of support among major orchestras and conductors from native symphonic music, as the European serialist movement, whose leaders derided thencurrent American compositional styles. attained considerable influence in this country after the war. In addition, during the 1940s Barber had retreated somewhat from the overt, heartfelt lyricism that had brought so much popularity to his earlier works while stigmatizing him among critics as a reactionary. His works from this period reveal a .language squarely in the mainstream of American composition-a dryer, cooler, more “objective”-sounding language influenced by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Copland, yet enriched by characteristically lyrical passages at strategic moments. Though this shift may have brought his music more in line with contemporary practice, it also reduced its immediate audience appeal to some extent.

In any case, while discussing the symphony’s relative neglect with his publisher during the early 1960s, Barber is reported to have said, “it is not a good work . . . . Let’s go back to the office and destroy it.” The subsequent act of physical destruction was more a rash, symbolic impulse than an actual obliteration of the work itself. as the recording and printed score had been widely circulated. Nevertheless, most of the parts were destroyed and the work was banned from recording or public performance. Only now, after some extensive negotiation, have the trustees of the Barber estate made an exception. allowing the release of this new recording.

What was so terrible about the symphony that prompted the composer to withdraw it? Barber’s great reputation often seemed to be for him something of a mixed blessing. For most of his professional life, he enjoyed a position of eminence that brought him both wealth (relatively speaking) and frequent performances and recordings by the world’s leading singers, instrumentalists, ensembles, and conductors. But with such success came the periodic pressure-others might view it as an opportunity-to create “blockbusters,” i.e., grand, highly publicized musical events. My impression-and I should confess that I did not know him well, though I have spoken to many who didis that Barber dreaded this sort of thing, feeling that monumental statements were not natural to his creative temperament. Furthermore, graduating from a safe, pampered childhood directly into the musical limelight by his mid-twenties seemed to render him terribly vulnerable to failure. Hence, he probably undertook such ambitious projects as the Second Symphony and the Opera Antony and Cleopatra (which incorporates the opening of the symphony into act 1. scene 2: see Fanfare 8:2, pp. 147-150, to pursue the affinity between these two works) with considerable misgivings, feeling pressured into supplying what was expected, yet finding the results alien to his true nature

However, though the Symphony No. 2 may not be the most authentic product of Barber’s inner character, with a larger array of reminiscences of other composers than is usually found in his music, this factor does not necessarily diminish the experience of the work for the listener. Indeed, it is perhaps a far more successful composition than Barber realized. From the expansive theme that opens the first movement, one encounters an assertive tone–even an aggressiveness-virtually unprecedented in the composer’s work, somewhat akin in spirit to the opening of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony and in language to the first movement of Prokofiev’s Sixth (both works written later than the Barber). The first movement as a whole is gripping throughout–taut, virile. solidly and tightly-if conventionally-structured. Quartal harmonies. spiked with major and minor seconds. abound, though the composer’s identity pecks through with a characteristically lyrical secondary theme introduced by the oboe. A distinctly American quality, not previously heard in Barber’s music, appears throughout the work (and throughout most of his subsequent compositions from the 1940s). It is this quality that links the symphony to so many others of the period, as well as suggesting a kinship with the music of Copland and Bernstein.

Barber had extracted the second movement from the symphony when he decided to withdraw it, entitling the excerpt Night Flight. Here the Americana flavor comes to the fore, with a wistful, nostalgic poignancy that he later developed in Knoxville and other works.
The third movement brings a renewed sense of determination and militance. In a sense. this is the most “abstract” movement, with contrapuntal passages that bring both Harris and Hindemith to mind. as well as a Walton-like glibness that robs the triumphant conclusion of some of its power and conviction.

On the whole, however, this is a work that ranks without apology alongside the best American symphonies of the period. In it Barber explored a harsher, more athletic, and more extroverted type of expression than he had in the past. He also produced a fine symphonic structure-more ambitious and complex than its predecessor-and this was no minor accomplishment for a composer who was rarely at his best in extended abstract works. As I immersed myself in the symphony, I kept wondering why he didn’t withdraw the Capricorn Concerto or the Excursions. two truly inferior, inauthentic-sounding works written the same year as the symphony!

The performance by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is nothing short of amazing. Andrew Schenck, who is becoming something of a Barber specialist, seems to have galvanized these musicians into generating the effort necessary to make the kind of definitive impact heard here. Of course, the orchestra may not offer the ultimate in refinement of balance and tone quality and individual soloists reveal some rough edges. But the combined effect is a stunning performance and a tremendously convincing argument on behalf of the work itself. I suspect that as a result of this release Barber’s Symphony No. 2 will return to the active repertoire. It will be most interesting to see how the recording is received in other quarters.

The “Essay for Orchestra” is a genre created by Barber to identify short orchestral compositions that follow neither classical structures nor explicit literary programmes. Essentially, each is a varied succession of atmospheric/emotional/dramatic episodes-not unrelated motivically, but without the sense of progression through an abstract argument. Barber composed three “Essays “during his career. of which the first two. written early on, hold an enduring place in the repertoire; the third, composed toward the end of his life, is well on the way to joining its predecessors. Their success is attributable to the direct and immediate appeal of their musical ideas as well as to Barber’s unerring mastery in presenting them to maximum effect, without placing undue structural demands upon them. The Slatkin disc is the first recording to offer all three, and in performances that are superb.

Essay No. 1 dates from the 1930s, and is one of the works that brought Barber to public attention while he was still in his twenties. Among the others are the Overture to the School for Scandal, Music for a Scene from Shelley, and the Adagio for Strings. Most of the pieces from this period are characterized by a deeply romantic feeling. expressed with genteel reserve, through concise, straightforward structures. The Essay, one of the finest of these early works, opens with a rich, somber elegy not too unlike the famous Adagio. Slatkin presents this with a breadth of phrasing and depth of conviction missing from prior recordings. However, inexplicably, he holds back the tempo of the light, scherzo-like allegromolto that follows, which gives it a stiff, labored quality. While lacking the fullness and refinement of the St. Louis Symphony, the New Zealand performance compensates with a more appropriate sense of pacing.

Overture to the School for Scandal was Barber’s graduation piece from the Curtis Institute. Neither vulgar nor pandering in any way, it is certainly one of the most scintillating, captivating overtures in the American repertoire. Both performances are fine, though Slatkin/St. Louis clearly has the advantage of a superior orchestra. The same comment also applies to the performances of the Adagio. As much as I have always loved this piece for its touching poignancy — what Wilfrid Mellers calls its “frail pathos” — its fragility cannot withstand the overexposure to which it has been — and is increasingly — subjected. I am sorry to say that, for me. it has joined most of the standard repertoire in ceasing to offer new levels of insight or stimulation that might sustain my interest through further hearings.
Music for a Scene from Shelley also dates from Barber’s early twenties, though it hasn’t won quite the popularity of some of the other pieces from that time. Lasting less than ten minutes. it builds upon a few simple elements to conjure a haunting mood of dark, gothic mystery, rising from an undulating murmur to a blood-curdling climax. One wonders whether this piece has ever been used in a cinematic context, as it would provide an ideal score for a Poe adaptation or something of the kind. The performance under Schenck is adequate, its gradual expansion nicely controlled. As the only decent modern recording of the work, it is most welcome.

Essay No. 2 is possibly Barber’s finest short orchestral work, packing tremendous expressive breadth and weight into eleven minutes. Although composed in 1942, it displays the same richness and ardor that characterize the compositions of the previous decade. The only hints of Barber’s impending stylistic shift are the fourths and fifths that permeate the main theme, suggesting the more explicitly American orientation that was to emerge two years later in the Second Symphony. Slatkin leads a magnificent performance of the work.

Medea, the ballet score Barber composed for Martha Graham’s Cave of the Heart, is his earliest excursion into ancient classical settings, and one of his finest works from the 1940s. A rhythmically exciting and exotically colored score, it features what is probably the composer’s harshest, most dissonant harmonic usage, although the Second Symphony seems to hold that reputation. Slatkin leads a stunning performance of the often-performed excerpt. Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance (a title later shortened by the composer. according to the accompanying program notes, to Medea’s Dance of Vengeance — a misjudgment. in my opinion). Andrew Schenck has also recorded this excerpt, with the London Symphony Orchestra. in a prior all-Barber CD (ASV CD DCA534; see Fanfare 10:1, pp. 98-9), but that version is somewhat inflated and overly fussy. There has been no recording of the complete ballet suite since Howard Hanson’s excellent, nearly thirty-year-old reading with the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra. One would think that the new EMI release would have given Slatkin, who has demonstrated a great affinity for Barber’s music, an excellent opportunity to take a fresh look at the complete score and provide us with an updated recording. The decision not to do so is the chief liability of this otherwise superb CD.

Essay No. 3, composed in 1978, was Barber’s last completed orchestral work. Having attended its premiere by the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta and having reviewed its first recording by the same forces (New World Records NW-309; seeFanfare 4:5, pp. 49-50), I found it to be a disappointment, markedly inferior to its two predecessors. Slatkin’s new recording has caused me to reconsider and modify my judgment somewhat. the harshness of which I can now attribute to Mehta’s shallow musicianship. Though it clearly lacks both the conciseness and the conviction of the other two Essays, Slatkin deftly nurtures its tender, almost cloying thematic materials, allowing them to build slowly to a brief but fulfilling climax of Straussian opulence.
Despite the overlap between these two releases, each offers significant merits of its own. Slatkin’s must be considered the finest all-Barber orchestral recording to date, better played (and recorded, of course) than the once-definitive Schippers issue (Odyssey Y-33230) which is now supplanted, while the presence of the Symphony No. 2 on the budget-priced Schenck/New Zealand disc renders that one indispensable for all Barber enthusiasts. This latter group should be pleased to learn that Stradivari executive Michael Fine and conductor Schenck are planning a future release to contain Prayers of Kierkegaard, a work for chorus and orchestra that happens to be my own favorite from Barber’s canon, along with The Lovers, an important and substantial work from 1970-never recorded-for baritone solo, chorus, and orchestra.

BARBER: Symphony No. 2. Music for a Scene from Shelley. Essay No. 1. Overture to the School for Scandal. Adagio for Strings. Andrew Schenck conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. STRADIVARI SCD-8012 [DDD]; 66:22. Produced by Michael Fine.
BARBER: Essays: No. 1; No. 2; No. 3. Medea’s Dance of Vengeance. Overture to the School for Scandal. Adagio for Strings. Leonard Slatkin conducting the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. EMI ANGEL CDC7-49463 2 [DDD]; 61:11. Produced by Joanna Nickrenz.