Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty
A film by H. Paul Moon
English, French, German, Spanish, Russian subtitles ZEN VIOLENCE FILMS [130:00]
This DVD proclaims the meticulous labour, inspiration and persuasive powers of H Paul Moon and his subject: the life and music of Samuel Barber. This lavishly illustrated documentary is no lightweight brevity. It draws on contemporary musicians and film and on recordings of artists no longer with us. Across 14 chapters, which can be navigated from a title screen, Moon has most artistically presented Barber the man, his milieu and many of his most famous or significant pieces. Chapters progress without title boards but with a momentary black screen by way of division. Continuity and the wider sweep of the composer's life are the order of the day. The sequence is linear with only one departure, Barber's childhood years appear later in the sequence when Knoxville - of sweet memory and surely one of the masterworks about childhood and nostalgia - is considered.
The vast majority of the major pieces are surveyed although there was little or nothing about some of my favourites: A Hand of Bridge, The Lovers, The Prayers of Kierkegaard, Souvenirs, the oddly titled Fadograph of a Yestern Scene, the three Essays and Symphony No. 2. One of my least favourite Barber pieces - the Piano Concerto - is also scouted over. Even a two-hour epic of this scale cannot cover everything.
This is a bejewelled production and includes video extracts of contemporary performances and footage of places that were landmarks in Barber's life including Capricorn and the Curtis Institute. William Schuman recalls Barber as a reserved and melancholy businessman. Barber's partner, Gian-Carlo Menotti, who after many years fell out with Barber and forced the sale of their joint property, Capricorn, recalls Barber dying in his arms. Leonard Bernstein is heard associating Barber with Plato in terms of the absolutes of truth, beauty and rightness.
Among today's musicians speaking about Barber and reflecting on his music are Melissa Fogarty and Thomas Hampson who is a lively commentator - I loved his description of the Library of Congress as "the largest shoebox of our stuff". Leonard Slatkin, whose Chandos BBCSO recording of Vanessa came out at about the same time (2004) as Gil Rose's on Naxos (review), also has much of value to say.
A recurring and welcome constant, chapter after chapter, is Barber's biographer Barbara Heyman, author of the comprehensive Samuel Barber - The Composer and His Music. She offers much in the way of illumination. Her delivery is always dignified yet lit with the occasional gentle smile. I loved her anecdote about discovering a quote Barber had written into the end of one of his sketchbooks for The Hermit Songs. He quoted Liszt - something along the lines of there is degree of innovation beyond which one does not pass without jeopardy. Barber played fast and loose with that boundary in the case of the Horowitz-owned Piano Sonata but otherwise bowed affectionately to his romantic lode-star. Other authorities also have their moments including Pierre Brévignon, author of a substantial French language book on Barber. Terry Teachout adds an intriguing comment that Barber had his successes but he was never fashionable - always out of touch with contemporary taste. His out and out line in melancholy romance usually found itself at odds with the critical wisdom of the day.
Thomas Hampson spends time considering an enduring work written when Barber was in his twenties: Dover Beach. A marine landscape with a gentle surf is seen under a louring sky transforming into night. This is cut in with the first of many archive videos showing Barber seen musing as he listens to his Dover Beach sitting over a Sony tape recorder playing the piece. Later there's monochrome footage, from the USA's National Education TV, of a performance of Barber's wind quintet Summer Music. The composer is seen in conversation with the quintet members including John de Lancie (oboe). This excellent footage shows how much we have lost in the televised presentation of music to the public. We also hear from baritone William Sharp whose singing of "Come to the window" reminds me of Butterworth's cycle Love Blows As The Wind Blows. Dover Beach is intriguing - after all a brash young man might have gone for brilliance but Dover Beach is all intense melancholy.
Punches are not pulled whether in relation to personal behaviour or musical assessment. Nor is this a case of non-stop adulation. For example we learn that Barber considered the Cello Sonata a student work and was not at all keen on it. There's also a salty anecdote about Christmases spent at Capricorn and a wide gamut of artistic visitors including Andy Warhol.
There's also no shortage of luminous stills. They are well used - generous measure but not a deluge. Also in useful evidence are images of yellowing scores, programme, notes, bills and letters. Among the early scores is a Prelude to a tragic drama; now that I would like to hear. I wonder if the Shelley Scene or any of the three orchestral Essays owe anything to that teenager's work. Add to this the Peter Dickinson-curated sound files of interviews with or about Barber. We hear for example a 1949 radio interview about the premiere of the First Symphony in Italy. Dickinson's book Samuel Barber Remembered - A Centenary Tribute (Boydell & Brewer, 2010) is a valuable source.
Marin Alsop is seen in interview and on the podium conducting the bipartite Medea 'tone poem', one of his most up-tempo aggressive and volcanically emotional eruptions. She comments on how gratefully and often Barber wrote for the oboe and makes an intriguing comparison with composer John Corigliano, a good friend of Barber. Tenor, Robert White reminisces about how Barber and he sat on the 107th floor of New York's World Trace Center for the 1976 Great Ships Day both drinking champagne like a intoxicated children lapping up the maritime spectacle across the harbour.
There is some reflection also on the famous Adagio for Strings and how Barber was bothered that this one piece had blotted out his other music. It's not uncommon - look at Rachamninov and his attitude to 'that' Prelude. As the commentator says - at least he is remembered for it. Many composers would have given their all to achieve such longevity of affection and reputation. Copland speaks of the Adagio's obvious sincerity while Virgil Thomson saw the work as a detailed love-scene, even a languid bed scene.
The violinist Jenny Oaks Baker, like Barber a graduate of the Curtis Institute, speaks disarmingly about her love for the Violin Concerto and we hear an extract which makes me want to hear the whole performance from her and the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra. I was similarly impressed with singer Rosa Lamoreaux in extracts from The Hermit Songs: meticulous attention to words and their shape and colour is balanced with musical values. There are also surprising anecdotes including one about a very young and impecunious Pierre Boulez who, it seems, played the piano in a European performance of the Violin Concerto. Boulez wrote Barber a guide on how to write serial music.
The operas Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra are mentioned alongside their starry premieres. The disaster that was the latter and its sharply adverse critical reception had Barber drawing back into his shell - few works followed that debacle.
This DVD steers a rewarding course between moving things along yet staying still long enough to inform, surprise and please.