BARBER: Three Songs, op. 2. Three Songs, op. 10. Four Songs, op. 13. Two Songs, op. 18. Nuvoletta, op. 25. Hermit Songs, op. 29. Despite and Still, op. 41.

by Walter Simmons

BARBER: Three Songs, op. 2. Three Songs, op. 10. Four Songs, op. 13. Two Songs, op. 18. Nuvoletta, op. 25. Hermit Songs, op. 29. Despite and Still, op. 41. Roberta Alexander, soprano; Tan Crone, piano. ETCETERA KTC-1055; 61:09. Produced by Klaas A. Posthuma. (Distributed by Qualiton.)

Since his death in 1981, Samuel Barber’s music has become increasingly entrenched in the repertoire. Indeed, today, most of his works are heard regularly in performance — an exceedingly rare phenomenon for an American composer. Yet, while larger-scale vocal works, such as Knoxville: Summer of 1915, have achieved great popularity, his songs — not surprisingly, perhaps, in view of the limited audience for the genre itself — have been slower to enter public awareness, although he continued to produce them throughout his life. This new CD provides a welcome opportunity to become better acquainted with Barber’s song output and to gain a clearer perspective on how they fit into his overall stylistic evolution.

At the outset, let me make clear that, unfortunately, this disc does not present Barber’s entire song output. Missing are the Melodies Passager├Ęs, op. 29 from 1950-51 (available on New World Records NW-229 in a performance by Pierre Bernac, with Francis Poulenc at the piano) and the Three Songs, op. 45, Barber’s last group of songs, written during the early 1970s for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (and recorded by him on MusicMasters 20027 as well as by Glenda Maurice on Etcetera ETC-1002 [see Fanfare 7:5, pp. 135ff]). Nevertheless, the hour or so of songs presented here provides a representative picture of Barber’s contribution to the art-song genre.

The earliest group, Three Songs, op. 2, appeared during the years 1927-34, and show their roots in the parlor-song tradition to which Barber, nephew of composer Sidney Homer, was exposed during his youth. But they are also clearly the works of a young aesthete, revealing the high-toned gentility and refined, restrained expression of elegiac emotions that were central to Barber’s artistic personality. The essence of this sensibility may be heard clearly in the one-minute setting of Housman’s “With rue my heart is laden.”

Three Songs, op. 10, and Four Songs. op. 13, are fruits of the late 1930s. This was the period of Barber’s early maturity, when he wrote the music that catapulted him to international attention: Adagio for strings, Symphony No. 1, and Essay No. l. In these works the germinal essence of Barber’s personality blossomed into a distinctive, richly expressive voice, capable of creating music that the average concert-goer might describe as “beautiful.” This natural gift brought him wide popular acceptance without his embracing the vulgarity of folk or jazz styles, as did many of his colleagues in their efforts to broaden their appeal. The songs of this period share the same qualities as the aforementioned instrumental works and are thus easy to love. “Sure on this shining night,” from the latter group, is Barber’s most popular song and one hearing is sufficient to demonstrate why. Not quite as obvious but exquisitely touching is “Rain has fallen,” from the former group, my own particular favorite. I mention these two songs as highlights, but the remainder of the two groups are equivalently lovely.

During the 1940s, Barber began to expand his nineteenth-century-based expressive palette to include lighter, cooler, and less personal emotions. To accomplish this, he drew upon some of the harmonic, rhythmic, and instrumental practices pioneered by Stravinsky, leavening them at times with traces of Parisian urbanity and at others with the touches of Americana that had become fashionable. This brought his musical language into the American mainstream of the time, as represented by Copland, Bernstein, and so many others. Although this period of congruence with contemporary fashion lasted little more than a decade, it saw the appearance of many works-such as the Excursions for piano, the Capricorn Concerto, the ballet MedeaKnoxville, the Sonata for Piano, the Hermit Songs, and Summer Music –– that brought him more critical acceptance than had his previous, more overtly reactionary music. Among these pieces, the Two Songs, op. 18, and Nuvoletta (set to James Joyce) seem somewhat trifling. But the Hermit Songs of 1953, written for Leontyne Price, are, along with Knoxville, Barber’s most widely respected works, and are certainly his best-known group of songs. Settings of ten short poems by anonymous Irish monks from the Middle Ages, these songs display a wider range of expression than is found in the earlier songs. As suggested above, this broader palette seems at times to be accomplished at the expense of the stylistic purity and authenticity that characterized his prior work. Yet songs such as “St. Ita’s Vision” and “The Crucifixion” reveal the distinctive lyrical poignancy that is Barber’s unique gift, appearing all the more striking in juxtaposition to the varied moods of the other songs. 

Sixteen years elapsed before Barber produced Despite and Still, his next group of songs, also for Leontyne Price. During this time, beginning with Prayers of Kierkegaard –– in my opinion, Barber’s greatest work — the composer had begun to integrate the new stylistic features with which he had been toying for several years into a more consistent, homogeneous language. Vanessa, the piano concerto, Andromache’s Farewell, and Antony and Cleopatra all exhibit the new expanded romanticism of Barber’s final maturity. By the late 1950s this language was no longer even close to the American mainstream, which now viewed the accessibility of tonal music with scorn. Yet Barber’s mature idiom became the stylistic basis for a whole younger generation of romantically oriented American composers — Lee Hoiby, John Corigliano, Thomas Pasatieri, Anthony Sbordoni, to some extent even Stephen Sondheim, and several others. However, the devastating failure in 1966 of Antony and Cleopatra seemed to sap Barber’s creative motivation as well as his physical health. Although in its revised form the opera has finally begun to win recognition as one of Barber’s greatest accomplishments, the seven pieces that he completed during the 15 remaining years of his life are, for the most part, half-hearted, insubstantial, and redundant. Despite and Stillwas the work with which Barber broke the several years of silence that followed the operatic debacle. While none of the five songs that comprise the group is a masterpiece, they are better than most of his subsequent compositions, with a depth and complexity that enable them to continue revealing rewarding aspects with increasing familiarity. Of particular interest is the first, “A Last Song,” which is based on a poem of Robert Graves and conveys a sense of the disillusionment tinged with self-pity that consumed Barber’s last years.

Roberta Alexander brings to her performances of these 28 songs an impressive intelligence and versatility. Her voice boasts a rich, light fluidity quite reminiscent of the young Leontyne Price herself. A slight but consistent flutter is the only vocal flaw worth mentioning. The recording is excellent, though no texts are included. There is little recorded competition in this very significant and worthwhile repertoire. Glenda Maurice includes six of these songs on her Barber/Britten album. also on Etcetera (cited above), but her full, heavy mezzo lends such a different quality as to eliminate any sense of redundancy. Thus this disc can be recommended virtually without reservation.