Samuel Barber

Reed’s chamber choir is doing the Samuel Barber choral song set “Reincarnations” this semester. I had heard the pieces last year at the Chanticleer concert I blogged about last year. At the time, it didn’t make much of an impression on me, but as I have been listening to the pieces these past couple of days, I’m appreciating how good they are, and exactly why I love Samuel Barber’s music (it must be said that I think one of the reasons I didn’t think much of the piece at the time was that Chanticleer is an all male chorus. I really think that something in the piece is lost when there aren’t sopranos screeching in the ether.).
I’ve always found vertical harmony more interesting than voice leading. I guess there’s something to be said for the idea that those two things cannot be separated, but one of my favorite things about the late Romantic period and 1930’s-50’s Americana is the big, meaty, interesting chords they use and the sudden changes in tonality they bring. I sometimes wonder if that perspective is an artifact of my immersion in rock and pop right as I gained critical maturity. Barber’s use of vertical harmony is always interesting. His most famous piece, Adagio for Strings is basically just beautiful chords moving from one to another.
Barber also makes me think about what it means to be a genius. I’m taking a class on Minimalism right now, and one of my teacher’s favorite aphorisms is that, “All great composers have been avant-garde.” Barber was never really avant-garde. His music used all of the techniques available of the time (according to Wikipedia, he even wrote some atonal music late in his career) but he was never known for pushing the boundaries of the tonality of his time. He worked in traditional genres and orchestration arrangements. And yet, I think some of his music is truly sublime, and near-perfect. Now, it’s possible that it’s just too early to say that Barber will be remembered by music history. It’s also true that he is probebly not the first name that pops up in someone’s head when talking about 20th century composers. But I do think that to ignore him becuase he wasn’t avant-garde would be a mistake, because his music is well crafted, unique, and genuine.
This is a little bit of a non sequiter, but that last idea reminded me of an article that I once read somewhere that framed the conflict between Schoenberg-style serialism and Coplandesque simplicity as one between straights and gays. Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Berg, all straight. Barber, Copland, Berenstein, huge queens. It’s not a serious argument, but sometimes I wonder if that delicacy and sensitivity to aesthetics found in their music is a wierd expression of the person. Probebly not. There were/are gay serialists, and the whole idea rests on stereotypes. Still, I wonder if my aesthetic preferences have something to do with the way that they wrote their music.
*The CD that the above YouTube video steals from is The Dale Warland Singer’s Reincarnations, which is top notch. I cannot reccomed it highly enough. I would have embedded the other pieces in the set, however they are not all available on YouTube, and the live versions there are a little inconsistent. Here’s the two other pieces in renditions that are not too bad:
Reincarnations I: Mary Hynes
II: The Coolin’

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