SAMUEL BARBER: Absolute Beauty

SAMUEL BARBER: Absolute Beauty ● Documentary with commentary and performance excerpts, both contemporary and historical ● ZEN VIOLENCE FILMS, available from (DVD: 130:00)

Documentary director: H. Paul Moon

This is a most welcome documentary about American composer Samuel Barber. In a relatively leisurely fashion, it covers the scope of his creative output from Dover Beach through the late Choruses, Op. 42, via generous excerpts of representative works comprising a cornucopia of performances by superb, if less familiar, musicians from the Washington, DC, area, but also a few from notable historical performances. The former include, among others too numerous to name, violinist Jenny Oaks Baker, cellist Stephen Framil, soprano Melissa Fogarty, the respective symphony orchestras of Alexandria, Baltimore, the Washington Metropolitan Symphony, the Cantate Chamber Singers, and IBIS Chamber Ensemble, while the latter include Leontyne Price and the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet. Commentaries by both current notables, such as Leonard Slatkin, Marin Alsop, and Thomas Hampson, and by important historical figures, such as William Schuman, Gian Carlo Menotti, Leonard Bernstein, and Aaron Copland, as well as by the composer himself, collectively create a richly nuanced, and sometimes insightful job of reviewing Barber’s biography and characterizing his artistic contribution, if somewhat less accurate in placing the composer within the context of the musical life of the time. That is, most of the commentators discuss Barber as if he were the only composer of his generation who ignored the compositional fashions of the time in favor of remaining true to his inner spirit. I am moved to point out that Barber was one of many such composers—some blessed by comparable creative gifts—but who lacked the tremendous privileges of affluence, supportive family, and highly placed social connections, as well as connections within the music world, which greatly facilitated Barber’s achieving the success he enjoyed.

Barber biographer Barbara Heyman and French biographer Pierre Brévignon are listed as “consulting producers,” and they provide the lion’s share of the commentary, especially the former, who essentially provides the narrative continuity. The viewer will come away with quite a rich understanding of the scope of Barber’s music, along with the essential elements of his biography, his temperament, and his personality. Even subjects that are often avoided, such as his homosexuality, his long-term relationship with Menotti and its heartbreaking collapse, and the background underlying the internationally publicized failure of his 1966 opera Antony and Cleopatra, are addressed and discussed with satisfying thoroughness.

But along with the enjoyment I experienced in hearing such a generous sample of Barber’s music, and the astute observations of many of the commentators, I also felt a certain frustration that most of what was said is already quite familiar to those who are conversant with the composer’s music. Truly, the documentary is best suited to those who are fond of the AdagioKnoxville, and perhaps the Violin Concerto, but don’t really know much about Barber’s life, his personality, or his other works. Such listeners are likely to find the documentary to be a revelation. Listeners who have never regarded Barber as a significant creative figure comprise another group of listeners who might find the film enlightening. But I think that those who are familiar with the extent of the composer’s output, and need no convincing as to its importance within the canon of American music, are likely to find most of the commentary rather obvious, and even somewhat superficial. Such viewers may feel that the perspectives of the individual commentators themselves are overly dominated by the works they have performed, rather than derived from an understanding of the totality of his contribution.

From today’s standpoint, I feel that it is well established that Samuel Barber was one of America’s greatest composers, and that a substantial portion of his output has carved an enduring place in the standard permanent repertoire, an accomplishment achieved by few of his contemporaries. Indeed, most of his works—the Cello Sonata, the Cello Concerto, the Piano Sonata, the Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, the String Quartet, and others are—rightly or wrongly—generally considered to be the foremost American compositions within their respective media, perhaps to the exclusion of equally meritorious works by other composers.

All in all, it is good to see the appearance of a documentary that should consolidate a broader awareness of Barber’s contributions. I hope that it attracts considerable attention. H. Paul Moon is to be commended for pulling together so many gifted performers and such revealing historical footage in compiling this multifaceted presentation.