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Barber (1910-81) - Overture: The School for Scandal

Barber’s “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 composers. 

Still, 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

This concert 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 things?” 

Well, 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
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