Samuel Barber - more than an adagio

In Sony's invaluable 39 CD Bruno Walter The Edition there is just one work composed after Mahler's Ninth Symphony, Samuel Barber's First Symphony in a 1945 recording made with the New York Philharmonic - Barber is seen in the photo above. Walter's tastes in contemporary music during his later years in America favoured the neoclassical and neoromantic. In particular he championed the compositions of Daniel Gregory Mason, and we are fortunate that archive recordings ripped to YouTube of Walter conducting the New York Philharmonic in Mason's Second Symphony and the NBC Symphony in the Suite After English Folk Songs allow us to sample this now forgotten and deeply unfashionable composer.

Samuel Barber's music also found favour with Walter, and following his successful championing of the composer's First Symphony Walter planned to programme the Second Symphony. This had been commissioned in 1943 by the United States Air Force as a tribute to aircrews, and the original version included a part in the second movement for a specially constructed electronic tone-generator to represent the technology used in warplanes. The symphony was premiered in March 1944 by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and was revised in 1947 when Barber replaced the tone-generator with an E-flat clarinet. When Bruno Walter received the score of the Second Symphony he was, to quote his biographers Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky "utterly repelled by it". Subsequently the revised symphony was taken up by Alexander Hilsberg who performed it with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1948. (Ryding and Pechefsky state that this performance was conducted by Eugene Ormandy, but Barber's biographer Barbara Heyman quotes a letter from the composer stating that the conductor was Hilsberg.)

In 1964 Barber withdrew the Second Symphony and ordered his publisher G. Schirmer to destroy the score and parts. He pleaded - rather disingeneously in view of Shostakovich's 7th and other great wartime symphonies - that "times of cataclysm are rarely conducive to the creation of good music", dismissing the symphony as "not a good work". In the same year Barber created the tone poem Night Flight from the second movement of the withdrawn symphony, making only minor amendments to the original score. (Wikipedia is wrong in stating that material from other Barber works is used in Night Flight; see Barbara Heyman p 230).

But all the materials for the Second Symphony had not been destroyed, and a set of orchestral parts was discovered in Schirmer's English warehouse in 1984. These parts were used for a 1988 recording by Andrew Schenck and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. (This recording was made, unsurprisingly in a studio in New Zealand and not, as stated on Wikipedia, in New York.) The symphony was subsequently taken up by Marin Alsop who recorded it for Naxos, and the persuasive account ripped to YouTube and featured below is by the Detroit Symphony conducted by Neeme Järvi.

Because of the ubiquitous Adagio for Strings, Barber is something of a one work composer, although his Violin Concerto has gained some traction in the wake of the popularity of the Korngold Concerto. (Some would argue that the Barber is the better piece.) Why Barber's Cello Concerto is not better known is a mystery, while the Sonata for Piano would surely respond to committed advocacy, while the Allegretto from his Excursions Op 20 is among my music to die for. Resurrecting works explicitly withdrawn by their composer is always contentious, although rather less contentious than the fashionable practice of posthumously completing works from sketches. But Samuel Barber's Second Symphony demands reappraisal, as its champion Andrew Schenck so eloquently explained in the note for his pioneering recording of the work:

But Barber was much more than a composer of 'absolute music.' He was a kind of tone poet who could capture perfectly the essence of his subject material. Sheridan's wit sparkles through the Overture to the School for Scandal, the First Essay is musical rhetoric at its noblest, and Barber's music emerges from Shelley's lines as if Shelley himself had dreamed it. The same poetry permeates the Second Symphony. It evokes the majesty of flight, the terror of war, the loneliness of te skies at night, the triumph of victory. For this reason above all, Samuel Barber's Second Symphony deserves a better fate than the oblivion assigned to it by its own composer.

No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Pliable said…
Richard Bratby comments on Facebook: 'Happily, the BBC Philharmonic is playing his excellent piano concerto tomorrow. And Vanessa is to be staged at Wexford - a wonderful opera with much that would appeal to a wide public'.

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