Barber (1910-81) - Overture: The School for Scandal
“problem” was that, at a time when “American Nationalism” was in full flood,
he chose the conservative option of “neo-Romantic European
traditionalism”. Born in Westchester, Pennsylvania, from 1924 he
studied piano, composition and singing (!) at the Curtis Institute in
Philadelphia, having played piano (and cello) since he was only six
years old. He started getting himself noticed in 1933, notably through
his setting of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, at the premiere
of which he sang the baritone part, and which was praised by Vaughan Williams.
That similar plaudits were less forthcoming on his own side of the
pond underlines that “problem”, the reason why Barber seems to have
become both one of the most famous and least successful of American
we can’t all be fearless pioneers, blazing trails into an unknown continent.
Barber’s relatively modest output - of operas, ballets, chamber,
vocal, choral and orchestral music - all bears the imprint of a masterly
craftsman with a good ear for sound and structure. His orchestral
music includes concertos, 2 symphonies, the 3 Essays - and his own
arrangement of the slow movement of his String Quartet, the
famous (and famously over-exposed) Adagio for Strings.
overture, a 1933 prizewinner, afforded him his best leg-up into the limelight.
It is ostensibly based on Sheridan’s play of 1777, the most scandalous
aspect of which is that the Lord Chamberlain, having refused the
play a licence, was persuaded to change his mind because of his personal
friendship with one Richard Brinsley Sheridan! With characters like Lady
Sneerwell, Sir Oliver Surface, and Snake (a forger), the nature of the
drama is obvious enough. However, I must confess that I find so little
of it in Barber’s “thoroughly modern” overture that I am inclined
to agree with the reflection of Mr. Puff (the hero of Sheridan’s The
Critic): “What is the use of a good plot except to bring in good
Barber’s “plot” is a sonata form which positively bubbles over with “good
things”! The opening flourish, a flurry of two-note cells coalescing
into a trill, both acts as a formal anchor and feeds the twitchy first
subject. The spasmodic fragments soon fuse into a more sustained
melody. A solo oboe introduces the graceful second subject, not easily
memorable - but teasingly sufficient to make you want to hear it
again. The strings immediately oblige, leading into a busy development
colourfully involving both subjects and culminating in batteries of stomping
repeated chords - thrusting us into the reprise, not “from the top” but
directly into the first subject’s “more sustained melody”! Following
the second subject reprise, rendered in full (thank you, Mr.
Barber!), comes an extended coda, interrupted by a brief hiatus before
its thumpingly emphatic conclusion on the opening’s two-note cell.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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