Symphony No. 1

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Samuel Barber
B. Mar. 9, 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania
D. Jan. 23, 1981 in New York, New York

When he wrote his First Symphony, Samuel Barber was no longer a student but not quite yet an established composer.  Having been once turned down for the Prix de Rome, Barber in 1935 resubmitted the same works he had offered the first time and was accepted.  The prize consisted of $2,500 and free living quarters at the American Academy in Rome.  Having begun work on his First Symphony while waiting to hear the results of his second try for the Rome prize, he took the piece along with him, finishing it in 1936.

He spent a carefree summer in 1936 wandering through France with Gian Carlo Menotti, his life partner.  Returning to the Academy, he put the orchestral parts for the symphony in order in preparation for its first performance under the direction of Molinari.  After several years without a clear direction, Barber’s career as a composer was beginning to move.  Early the next year, Artur Rodzinski led the Cleveland Orchestra in the symphony’s first U.S. performance.  Later that year, he took it to the Salzburg Festival, the first work by an American composer to be played there.  The composer made slight revisions in 1942.

Barber described the symphony in conventional terms as follows:  “The form is a synthetic treatment of the four-movement classical symphony.  It is based on three themes of the initial Allegro non troppo, which retain throughout the work their fundamental character.   The Allegro opens with the usual exposition of a main theme, a more lyrical second theme, and a closing theme.  After a brief development of the three themes, instead of the customary recapitulation, the first theme, in diminution, forms the basis of the scherzo section (Vivace).  The second theme (oboe over muted strings) then appears, in augmentation, in an extended Andante tranquillo.  An intense crescendo introduces the finale, which is a short passacaglia based on the first theme (introduced by the violincelli and the contrabassi), over which, together with figures from other themes, the closing theme is woven, thus serving as recapitulation.”

Although detailed, this explanation does not reveal the symphony’s full achievement or anything of its spirit.  From Liszt’s book, Barber had taken the principle of thematic transformation without the literary baggage that went with it in Liszt’s tone poems.  The scherzo has the sly humor of Haydn, not the bumptious sort favored by Beethoven.  And in the finale, it is difficult not to hear echoes of Brahms, who closed his own Fourth Symphony – which, less equivocally than the Barber, is in E minor – with a passacaglia, in Brahms’ case a very specific tribute to Bach.  Barber’s own, even at the age of 26, was a characteristic mix of ardor and restraint: just at the point when vulgarity threatens, Barber, the perennial patrician, inevitably turns aside.  This reticence, plus an undeniable reverence for the past, brought Barber some enemies.  But as one fashion after another has faded, his music still speaks clearly, in an accent this is unmistakable for any other.

The DSO last performed Barber’s Symphony No. 1 in April 1995 with Neeme Järvi conducting.

DSO Shop @ The Max Recommends:  Barber – Symphony No. 1: Leonard Slatkin conducting the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, RCA 60732 or Neeme Järvi conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Chandos 9684.

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