"I was meant to be a composer and will be I'm sure...Don't ask me to try
to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football--please."
Barber wrote this in a note to his mother. He was 9.
I am passionate about Barber. I can't imagine anyone being able to
describe him in anything but glowing terms. Many legendary artistic
contemporaries of his, Horowitz, Toscanini, Steber, John Browning,
Martha Graham, Jennie Tourel, and of course Leontyne Price were very
supportive. Vanessa, when it opened was a critical and popular success,
however Anthony and Cleopatra, pretty much ended his career. The 1974
revision, was a vast improvement to this work. the failure was reputed
to be less about Barber, and more about Zeffrelli's libretto, and
overblown technical hoo-haw, but he never seemed to recover from this
failure. The true shame is that he did not live to see the revival of
tonalism/lyricism, having discovered serial music to be sort of a dead
end. Many later composers consider him a prophet. He is now considered
one of the greatest 20th century composers.
His pieces are diverse, so fresh and different. Some of them, complex
and thought provoking, some seemingly simple, but every one of them,
makes you stop and wonder. I would hesitate to say he composed in any
one way, because looking at his work chronologically, it is possible to
see his progression. His contemporaries such as Copland, Diamond,
Bernstein, Harris, all seemed to roll out their sleeping bags in a
particular camp. Barber disconnected with the arguments of style, old
fashioned vs. contemporary, Schoenberg or Stravinsky, atonal vs. tonal.
He just composed, and in doing so, was often the subject of controversy.
They tried to label him as 'neo-romantic' but it does not work.
Sometimes, jarring and dissonant, always complex, sumptuous, but at the
same time, lyrical. He himself remarked his music was "born of what I
feel..I am not a self-conscious composer."
Nothing Barber has written, upon hearing it for the first time, screams
his name, and this may have been to his detriment. I think this is where
a lot of the anti-Barber arrogance comes from. It is would be very
difficult to review his music, and compare it to anything or anyone
else, and often people criticize what they do not understand. Perhaps it
is best to listen to Barber, as he composed it, with no agenda. There is
something comforting about knowing what to expect from a composer. For
instance, I am pretty sure, if Phillip Glass wrote an opera, there is a
80% chance I am going to loathe it. One day at Tower Classical, the
employees had put on a CD of Akhnaten, and the ten people including
myself shopping the back opera wall, went as a group to the front to ask
them to please, change the CD.
A tragedy, is that he only published 38 songs, when he wrote over 100.
As a composer of vocal music, Barber shows an amazing sensitivity to the
human voice. He should. He was an accomplished Baritone. His choral set
pieces, Reincarnations are a masterpiece. He composed well in all
disciplines he chose to attempt, a rare feat.
My very favorite Barber recording is Leontyne Price Sings Barber. Here,
the woman he dedicated the songs to, sings many of them with the
composer as the accompanist. How often do we get to hear that? It is a
naked glimpse into his music, and that Knoxville, oh my my. If you have
not heard it, you should.
I have founders circle tickets to Vanessa for the 15th. There is no way
I would miss it, and will likely trek to San Diego later this season, to
compare and contrast. I am so excited to see Dame Kiri here too. When I
bought my first VCR, the first thing I ever recorded, was the PBS airing
of her in Die Fledermaus. When the tape finally broke, I wept. She
inspired me then, and does now, as a 43 year old soprano, that yes, I
might have a few years left singing.
While I have complained at times, vociferously about Los Angeles Opera.
I always feel the need to include that Southern California is incredibly
lucky! We have LA, San Diego, Opera Pacific, Long Beach, all within an
easy driving distance. Then there is the struggling Lyric Opera of Los
Angeles, whose Der Vampyr was the most fun I have had in years. We don't
have to travel out of town to see an opera anymore. Finally, LA gets to
see some truly amazing singers and not just on Live from the Met.
We are at the opera the 14th and 15th in December. If any listers are
there the same night, let me know. I am always happy to meet them. :)
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