In literature, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac and Thomas Pynchon adopt news ways of depicting the world. On the silver screen, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford and Howard Hawks lay down the cardinal rules of filmmaking. But, more so perhaps than in any other form of art, it is in music that a new path is laid, leading the New World into reconsidering its status in relation to Europe. While Wagnerism and Spanish folk-music invade France, while Germany predicts the “thousand-year reign” of twelve-tone music and Italy looks for a worthy successor to Verdi and Puccini, America witnesses the birth of an innovative and resolutely modern music, deeply rooted in the national identity. This incredibly rich generation of talents - Scott Joplin and his rags, George Gershwin and his fusion-jazz, Charles Ives and his chaotic fanfares, Aaron Copland and his re-invented Prairie music, Leonard Bernstein and his operatic Broadway -, mixes with the most daring composers of the avant-garde (Ives, of course, but also Roger Sessions, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Morton Feldman and John Cage). Far away from this circle of great artists devoted to Modern Music, one composer stands out: Samuel Barber (1910-1981).
Although a contemporary of Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter and Aaron Copland, Barber spent his life away from the musical trends of the time. Neither a born-showman like the author of West Side Story, nor an experimentalist or a folklorist, he made a point of ignoring all kinds of musical trends and so-called “avant-garde” music. Far from writing national(istic) music, he continuously strove to outline the musical links between America and Europe. His multicultural sensitivity may seem all the more paradoxical since, unlike Carter, Copland, Bernstein and dozens of other American composers, he never attended any lessons with Nadia Boulanger at the French-American Conservatoire de Fontainebleau.
Barber’s passion for the Old World comes first from his aunt Louise Homer, one of the most acclaimed contraltos of the Metropolitan Opera, and from his uncle Sidney Homer, a famous composer of art-songs. After their marriage in 1895, the Homers left America to live in France, where Louise’s career soon took off. Four years later, after receiving raving praises in London and in Brussels, Louise Homer and her husband went back to America. She was immediately hired by the Metropolitan Opera and sang there for twenty years in all the French operas by Gounod, Meyerbeer, Saint-Saëns, Gluck, Offenbach and Boieldieu - along with the compulsory heroines of Wagner and Verdi. This close relationship with French music would make a strong and lasting impression on the young Barber. When he first traveled to Europe, as an unconscious tribute, he chose Paris as his first destination.
His composition teacher at the Curtis Institute, Rosario Scalero was another major European influence on Barber. The Italian musician worshipped above all Johannes Brahms, Johann Sebastian Bach and the Renaissance madrigalists. These three sources of inspiration are obvious in the early works of Samuel Barber – chamber, vocal and orchestral music. But the most important and long-lasting European influence came undoubtedly from the Italo-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti, Barber’s companion and alter ego for forty years. Thanks to him, Barber would remain open to international cultures and curious of new horizons.
Samuel Barber had the reputation of being a maverick on America’s musical scene. With the exception of his Second Symphony (1944) dedicated to the US Air Force, his Excursions for piano based on American folk-music and his moving setting of a poem by James Agee, Knoxville Summer of 1915, his catalogue is by and large an unconditional declaration of love to European culture. In his songs, orchestral works and operas, Barber drew his inspiration from James Joyce, Søren Kierkegaard, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Greek tragedians, Victorian poets, Shakespeare, Pablo Neruda, Anton Chekhov and Isak Dinesen. Composed in 1951, his song-cycle Mélodies Passagères embodies his love for Europe: based on poems written in French by Austrian author Rainer Maria Rilke, the cycle was premiered by its French dedicatees, the baritone Pierre Bernac and composer-pianist Francis Poulenc. So special were the bonds between Barber and France that in 1952, on the recommendation of Arthur Honegger and Roland-Manuel, Barber decided to run for president of the International Music Council of UNESCO – and was elected. Fluent in Italian, German, French and Russian, he became friends with the most acclaimed international artists of the time. It’s therefore no surprise that he was the first American composer invited in Russia during the Cold War.
Yet, by a strange alchemy, Barber’s music always speaks of a timeless America. His Adagio for Strings, his Violin Concerto or his Piano Sonata remain forever part of the Americana, in the same way as the Empire State Building, the cinnamon doughnut, Road 66 or the Marx Brothers do. American to the core, European to the core, Barber will be celebrated in 2010 for his centennial by a French organization, the Capricorn Society, in a series of concerts featuring musicians from the New World and the Old World.
Bibliography and links
In English :
* Nathan Broder, Samuel Barber, G. Schirmer, 1954
* Peter Dickinson, Samuel Barber Remembered, University of Rochester Press, 2010
* Daniel Felsenfeld, Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber : Parallel Lives, Amadeus press, 2005
* Barbara B. Heyman, Samuel Barber, the Composer and his Music¸ Oxford University Press, 1992
* Walter Simmons, Voices in the Wilderness, Scarecrow Press, 2004
In French :
* Pierre Brévignon, Samuel Barber ou le Malentendu, Bleu Nuit, 2010
On the Internet :
Samuel Barber in September 1966, a few days before the premiere of his opera Antony and Cleopatra © Association Capricorn
Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti in their villa, « Capricorn », 1958 © Association Capricorn
From the stamp series « Classical Composers », issued in 1997 © Association Capricorn