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.
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).”
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.