Music Monday: Barber: Summer Music

Because we're having a bit of a heat wave here in Los Angeles, I'm skipping ahead to something that I'd normally save for rather later in the year. Despite the fact that there's almost nothing about him on my blog, I consider Samuel Barber (1910 - 81) to be one of my deepest compositional influences, tho he can be a hard composer to get a handle on. Born into a decidedly upper-middle class family in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Barber had no shortage of musical influences early in life: His mother was a pianist, his uncle a composer, and his aunt a contralto with the Metropolitan Opera. Little wonder, then, that Barber expressed certainty that he'd be a composer when he was only nine years old.

At the age of 14, he entered the Curtis Institute, triple majoring in piano, composition, and voice. He was basically absurdly talented at all three of them, and quickly became the darling of the school's founder, Marie Louise Curtis Bok, who would subsequently introduce Barber to his future publishers in the Schirmer family. While at Curtis, he met Gian Carlo Menotti, who would go on to become his life-long romantic (and sometimes artistic) partner. (Menotti was a composer in his own right, tho he has generally not been as widely recognized an appreciated as Barber has. I personally find Menotti's works to be rather bland and uninspiring, so don't expect to see Amahl and the Night Visitors featured here any time soon.) Unlike many composers who struggle to gain recognition in their lifetimes, Barber was pretty much an instant success, and many of his works entered the standard repertoire as soon as they were premièred. His few flops — most famously the Antony and Cleopatra opera that he wrote for the opening of the current Metropolitan Opera house at Lincoln Center in 1966, which was savaged in the press and not exactly beloved by the audience — are far eclipsed by his other works — you have definitely heard his Adagio for Strings, even if it wasn't identified as such. Said works are somewhat scattered between ensembles and genres — he didn't write a whole cycle of symphonies or slew of concerti; his largest compositional category is probably voice and piano — but they are each and every one of them gems.

Rather unusually, the commission for Summer Music was paid for not by an organization or consortium, but by subscribers to a chamber music series in Detroit. The idea was to defray the cost of the new work so that the individual audience members of the Chamber Music Society of Detroit would only have to chip in a few dollars, much like a pre-internet in Kickstarter-style crowdfunding. (This model of commissioning didn't catch on in 1954, but it seems considerably more viable today.) Originally, Barber was supposed to produce a septet for three winds, three strings, and piano, but after spending a summer with the New York Wind Quintet, he altered the instrumentation to fit that ensemble. Despite working very closely with the NYWQ in the compositional process (one of the members reportedly drew up a chart of chords that are particularly difficult for a wind quintet to play well, and Barber gleefully included all of them), Barber honored the initial arrangement and let the Detroit players give the world première. (As soon as they could, the NYWQ began playing the piece, and with gusto, playing it more than fifteen times in the first year alone.)

Bassoon and horn set the piece on its way, singing out languid, indolent lines quickly interspersed with colorful interjections from the flute and clarinet. What follows is less programmatic than suggestive — there are interludes that suggest idle lounging in a shady hammock and others that suggest the astringent chirping of insects, but no narrative arc links these together, and many passages seem to have no direct counterpart in the external world, instead conjuring a mood or emotion that one might feel on a lazy August afternoon. Each section is distinct and clearly defined, but they flow into each other easily and without high-stakes drama. A reprise of the opening material about halfway thru re-starts the piece with a greater sense of forward motion. There is an interruption in the form of a rapid ascent followed by yet a third re-launch, this time leading to a brilliant, swirling apotheosis before the dregs of the piece swirl quickly by and wink out of existence, like a memory of distant youth.