SAMUEL BARBER — ANDROMACHE’S FAREWELL

Hektor bidding farewell to his wife, Andromache, and their son, Astyanax

 

Samuel Bar­ber was born March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Penn­syl­va­nia, and died at his home in Man­hat­tan on Jan­u­ary 23, 1981. Andromache’s Farewell, for soprano and orches­tra, was com­mis­sioned by the New York Phil­har­monic in cel­e­bra­tion of its open­ing sea­son at Lin­coln Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts, where it was pre­miered on April 4, 1963, with Mar­tina Arroyo as soprano soloist and Thomas Schip­pers con­duct­ing. The text for Andromache’s Farewell is from The Tro­jan Women by Euripi­des, in a trans­la­tion made at the composer’s request by John Patrick Creagh. The orches­tra con­sists of pic­colo, two flutes, two oboes and Eng­lish horn, two clar­inets and bass clar­inet, two bas­soons, four horns, three trum­pets, three trom­bones, tuba, tim­pani, cym­bals, tan-tam, bass drum, snare drum, tenor drum, xylo­phone, celesta, antique cym­bal, tam­bourine, anvil, whip, wood block, harp, and strings.

 

It is per­haps inevitable that Samuel Bar­ber would end up a gifted com­poser of music for the human voice. His mother’s sis­ter was the great Amer­i­can con­tralto Louise Homer, and it turned out that Samuel him­self had a beau­ti­ful bari­tone voice. So promis­ing was the young man’s singing that, when he entered the Cur­tis Insti­tute of Music in 1924, he stud­ied voice with Emilio de Gogorza, as well as piano, com­po­si­tion, and (with Fritz Reiner) con­duct­ing.  When Bar­ber decided to stop vocal stud­ies with de Gogorza he wrote a friend, “How soon one for­gets singing; I haven’t opened my mouth; I never really liked it any­way. Instead I am eagerly look­ing for­ward to teach­ing next year. I should be per­fectly happy to be a piano teacher for the rest of my life, and play ten­nis a lit­tle on the side.”

But singing was obvi­ously part of Barber’s soul. In 1934 he went to Vienna, where he ended up study­ing con­duct­ing — and voice. He wrote enthu­si­as­ti­cally to a friend that he was tak­ing two voice lessons a day and that he had “made much progress.” In was in Vienna that he devel­oped a pas­sion for early Ger­man lieder: Schmügel, André, Schulz and so on, and copied many man­u­scripts of charm­ing and gemütlich things,” he wrote.

Samuel Bar­ber

His inter­est in early music soon spread to early Ital­ian com­posers, and he decided to help sup­port him­self, on his return to the United States, with his singing. One per­son to whom he con­fided his plans for a singing career was his com­po­si­tion teacher at Cur­tis, Rosario Scalero. “I am hop­ing to sup­port myself with my voice, for there is a field in small con­certs in Amer­ica. I expect to do a group of Ger­man and early Ital­ian things, play­ing my own accom­pa­ni­ments on a spinet which I am tak­ing back to Amer­ica with me. Do you think I am com­pletely cracked?…Why should some­one not res­ur­rect these mar­velous things for voice as Landowska did for cem­balo music?”

Bar­ber did exactly that, giv­ing con­certs in ther autumn and win­ter of 1934, dur­ing which he accom­pa­nied him­self in songs by Mon­teverdi, Cac­cini, Dow­land, C.P.E. Bach, Han­del, Schu­bert, and Amer­i­can and Ital­ian folk music. The response from the pub­lic and crit­ics was suf­fi­ciently pos­i­tive to secure the young man a job singing on nation­wide radio. His debut on Feb­ru­ary 4, 1935, was on the NBC Music Guild series. Other national broad­cast recitals fol­lowed. One of the peo­ple who heard that first radio con­cert was Charles O’Connell, head of RCA Vic­tor Record Company’s artist and reper­tory divi­sion, who was impressed enough with Samuel Bar­ber the singer that he decided to ask the young man to make a record­ing of his own “Dover Beach,” a 1931 work for voice and string quar­tet. (The record­ing was issued in 1936 and is cur­rently avail­able the Pearl label.)

Tough Bar­ber even­tu­ally dropped his bid­ding career as a singer to con­cen­trate on his com­po­si­tion, he — like Rossini before him — would occa­sion­ally per­form for his house­guests. Bar­ber sang works by the great Ger­man lieder com­posers, as well as songs by his uncle, Sid­ney Homer, who was an enor­mous influ­ence on the young man, and with whom he had his first lessons in composition.

Though vir­tu­ally unknown today, Sid­ney Homer wrote such once-popular songs as “The Banjo Song,” “How’s My Boy?”, The Pauper’s Drive,” “The Sick Rose,” (said to be a favorite of his nephew Sam), and “The Song of the Shirt,” as well as a Requiem and a vast quan­tity of other music. While one would have expected his wife, Louise Homer, to have pro­grammed his music, many other famous singers from the early days of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury also per­formed his works reg­u­larly: David Bis­pham, Alma Gluck, Johanna Gad­ski, and Sigrid One­gin, to name only a few. The influ­ence Sid­ney and Louise Homer had on Samuel Barber’s musi­cal taste, and the sup­port they gave the young man in his deter­mi­na­tion to be a musi­cian, can hardly be over estimated.

Barber’s father was a doc­tor and promi­nent civic leader in quiet, afflu­ent West Chester. Despite the part music played in the fam­ily, Samuel Barber’s par­ents were con­cerned that their son was becom­ing too wrapped up in music at the expense of other activ­i­ties that would make him “well-rounded.” But the nine-year-old boy was deter­mined to pur­sue what was impor­tant to him, and he expressed him­self — quite poignantly and plainly — in a now-famous let­ter to his mother:

I have writ­ten this to tell you my wor­ry­ing secret. Now don’t cry when you read it because it is nei­ther yours nor my fault. I sup­pose I will have to tell it now with­out any non­sense. To begin with I was not meant to be an ath­let [sic]. I was meant to be a com­poser, and will be I am sure. I’ll ask you one more thing. — Don’t ask me to try and for­get this unpleas­ant thing and go play foot­ball.—Please—Some­times I’ve been wor­ry­ing about this so much that it make me mad (not very).”

Mar­tina Arroyo

This remark­able self-knowledge and deter­mi­na­tion to do what he knew he had to do, to go his own way because it was right for him, was reflected in Barber’s music. At a time most com­posers were explor­ing seri­al­ism and tone rows, writ­ing music that left audi­ences baf­fled or alien­ated, Bar­ber wrote music that expresses deep emo­tion, music that speaks pow­er­fully and directly. The sheer vari­ety of his emo­tional palette is stag­ger­ing, as evi­denced in his orches­tral music alone by the shifts in moods from the bustling, infec­tious Over­ture to The School for Scan­dal, to the ele­giac pro­fun­dity of the famous Ada­gio for Strings, to the rhap­sodic Sec­ond Essay for Orchestra.

But per­haps Bar­ber was at his most com­mu­nica­tive when he wrote for the human voice. The imme­di­acy of the music trans­port lis­ten­ers to the world of the song. Few song cycles in their entirety evoke a time and place as thor­oughly and instantly as Barber’s Knoxville: Sum­mer of 1915. In his Her­mit Songs, he ranges from the inno­cence of “The Heav­enly Ban­quet,” to the wicked humor of “Promis­cu­ity,” to the seren­ity of “The Monk and His Cat” in a mat­ter of min­utes. Bar­ber wrote two full-length operas, both on com­mis­sion from the Met, Vanessa (1958) and Antony and Cleopa­tra (1966). He also wrote a mas­ter­ful cham­ber opera, A Hand of Bridge (1959).

The com­poser set the scene for this 1963 con­cert piece Andromache’s Farewell in the fol­low­ing note, which he included in the score. “Scene: an open space before Troy, which has just been cap­tured by the Greeks. All Tro­jan men had been killed or have fled and the women and chil­dren are held cap­tives. Each Tro­jan woman has been allot­ted to a Greek war­rior and the ships are now ready to take them into exile. Andro­mache, widow of Hec­tor, Prince of Troy, has been given as a slave-wife to the son of Achilles. She has just been told that she can­not take her lit­tle son with her in the ship. For it has been decreed by the Greeks that a hero’s son must not be allowed to live and that he is to be hurled over the bat­tle­ment of Troy.  She bids him farewell. In the back­ground the city of slowly burn­ing. It is just before dawn.”

In his music Bar­ber cap­tures Andromache’s excru­ci­at­ing emo­tions — sor­row, despair, anger. Though Andromache’s Farewell is a self-contained piece and not part of a larger work, lis­ten­ers can­not help but be reminded of the great scenes for soprano and orches­tra by com­posers such as Wag­ner and Richard Strauss. Andromache’s Farewell is oper­atic in the best sense of the word, with the human voice con­vey­ing emo­tion through the com­bin­ing of words and music into riv­et­ing drama.

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here by permission.