Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music, by Barbara B. Heyman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. xviii + 586 pp. ISBN 0-19-506650-2.
Barbara Heyman's study of the life and works of Samuel Barber continues the important trend in current music scholarship to assess the careers of American composers born in the generation after 1895. Already there have been integral editions of writings by Elliott Carter, Ross Lee Finney, and Roger Sessions, for example. A selection of letters by Virgil Thomson has also appeared. With her Charles Ives Remembered, which appeared in the seventies, Vivian Perlis established the fundamental usefulness of oral history in the writing of composers' biographies. And it is perhaps Perlis's recently-completed two-volume biography of Aaron Copland that has determined the standard for forming a biography upon systematic oral history.
With these precedents, Heyman's biography of Barber represents a kind of synthesis: collation of the composer's published writings, letters to and from the composer, and interviews with the subject's many associates, with study of music by the composer foremost. Unlike Perlis in her collaborative biography of Copland, Heyman did not herself interview her subject. And unlike Perlis but true to her subject, Heyman does concentrate on Barber's music. Heyman has gathered her information principally from Barber's associates through personal interviews and through correspondence. Many different people, with names familiar and unfamiliar, make cameo appearances throughout this book.
All of the many writings have been identified through careful footnotes and bibliographical entries. Heyman has provided much detailed information on the composer, usually by quoting her sources directly in the manner of oral history. Each element of information has been meticulously verified. Her work sets a standard for care and thoroughness; scholar and enthusiast alike are very much in her debt. In her essential format Heyman follows the approach of Nathan Broder, whose brief biography of Barber dates from the early fifties. Heyman acknowledges Broder's work as an important resource, but, as with all her sources, subjects each element to careful criticism.
The author has entitled her book simply Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music, a form of title used familiarly for such studies. Heyman might well have chosen to call hers instead "The Music and the Composer," for it is through Barber's music that we learn about Barber's life. Heyman shows Barber to be one of the last, if not the last, of the line of composers who served long musical apprenticeships as their compositional abilities matured. Not unlike such composers of previous generations as Arthur Nevin, Charles Wakefield Cadman, and Henry Hadley, Barber exhibited his musical talents at an early age. And like these older composers, Barber at some time developed a number of musical skills, including piano, organ, and cello playing, singing, conducting, and even teaching. Significantly and uniquely, Barber can be heard on recording both as singer (his recording of "Dover Beach" available on New World Records) and as pianist (his own "Hermit Songs" recorded with Leontyne Price, as well as a recording of Stravinsky's Les Noces, in collaboration with fellow composer-performers Copland, Sessions, Foss, and the composer himself).
It is perhaps the traditional nature of his apprenticeship that accounts for the fact that throughout his life the epithet of conservative followed him very closely. Barber evolved as a composer through many years of work directly with Rosario Scalero, the composition teacher at Curtis Institute, whose inaugural class in 1924 included the fourteen year-old Barber. It is Barber's correspondence with Scalero and with his uncle Sidney Homer, each generously quoted by Heyman, that reveals the formative influences on the composer and is another significant factor in his ultimate stance as a conservative. But beyond the process of growing as a composer is the fact that Barber's life, even in his teenage years, was indeed consumed by the very circumstances of composing music: overseeing publication, advising performers, revising works, making public appearances.
While the mystique of what constitutes the act of composing can never be fully explained, through Heyman's biography the reader does learn a great deal about the actual work of being a composer. After Barber's mentors Scalero and Homer, his chief associates were the performers who interpreted his music. A characteristic episode in his work with performers surrounds the composition of his wind quintet "Summer Music." Here Barber studied the many intonation studies composed for the New York Woodwind Quintet by hornist John Barrows. Barber not only heard the quintet rehearse these studies, but he also examined them in written form. As with all his compositions, he carefully studied the medium before, during, and after composition, usually resulting in an ongoing process of revision. Here the careers of Barber and Copland may be seen to diverge significantly. While the latter gained much stimulus from contact with his modernist composer associates, Barber remained the friend of the more tradition-oriented performers.
Heyman organizes the biography in chronological order, according to the date when work on a particular composition was undertaken. Subheadings of chapters are titles of Barber's works, including numerous works that remain unpublished. Heyman also uses titles of chapters to describe the stage of Barber's life (for example, Discoveries, Recognition, World Cataclysm), but the chapter is still chiefly about the music he wrote during the particular period. For each composition, the bare facts of the composer's life are enumerated, the reasons for the composition are given, relevant correspondence is discussed and quoted. Then the author presents a description of the work, with some analytical commentary as well as an account of the nature and location of various sketches and revisions. Each discussion is generously illustrated with musical excerpts, both publication and facsimile. The performance and revision history of the particular composition is then developed even though that history may extend to years well beyond the original conception. With such an approach, often the chronology becomes somewhat confused, since the revision and performance history of a work continued while succeeding new works were being composed.
We see compositional style develop directly, while we witness Barber's life evolve more implicitly. In order to examine any one of the aspects of Barber's life—his association with performers in general, his friends, his travels, his personal life—one must consult the very detailed index entries, especially those under the composer's name. For example, we are aware of Barber's military service, but since it impinges on several different compositions, we read about it sporadically as we read about the relevant compositions.
Except for a brief epilogue, the question of Barber's national identity and ultimate historical significance is mostly left to the reader. The issue of Barber's Americanism arises principally in conjunction with the composition of "Knoxville, Summer of 1915." Characteristically attracted to English texts by authors from the British Isles as well as some continental writers, Barber's interest here in James Agee's text is somewhat uncharacteristic. It is his sensitive treatment of Agee's special prosody and the sympathetic feeling for its subject that momentarily grants him the label of Americanist. Furthermore, his "stint" in the army was justified by the composition of his Symphony No. 2, purportedly evocative of World War II. Barber's Souvenirs, for piano, four hands, also refers to some American popular dance idioms, but not even all the pieces there are American in origin. Despite the clear connotations of the first of these works and the associations of the other two, Barber remained first of all a composer steeped in the long line of music making, not one involved in the modernist, Americanist fervor that arose chiefly in the twenties and in Paris.
One may read Heyman's biography in three different ways. First, it is a very detailed reference work on the music that Barber composed. Second, one may consult the index and read separately about any aspect of Barber's professional and personal life. Third, and perhaps the least obvious in a way, one may read the book from beginning to end. It is with this last approach that the "biography" of Barber emerges, but it is largely left to the reader to form this biography. Anyone who has lived through Barber's own lifetime has surely been aware of the demarcation made by the opera Antony and Cleopatra, written for the new Metropolitan Opera house in 1966. In Heyman's book is all the information—reviews, correspondence, relations with Zeffirelli, analysis—that surrounded the premiere of the first version and the process of extensive revisions that occupied the composer over the next decade. Of course, this subject occupies the latter pages of the book. However, one must read all the way through to gain a full notion of Barber's persona: an avid devotee of literature, a music professional, especially relating to performers, a perfectionist, something of a loner.
It is actually through the operas that perhaps we may most specifically come to terms with Barber's somewhat enigmatic career. Both of the major operas, Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra, derive clearly from European traditions. The settings are not in the United States, though the former work was tried in a transplanted American venue for one revival. While each has been called "an American opera" at some point, neither bears any Americanist element. Except for Barber's clearly-tonal, but dissonant idiom, neither work can really be called modernist. The works are operas first and last, born out of the received tradition that is itself actually never inherently nationalist. It is perhaps most significant to the career of the latter opera that Barber uncharacteristically remained somewhat apart from the "performance" of the work, as the production and libretto were largely dominated by Franco Zeffirelli.
Barber's music was not experimental in the twenties; he was very young for a composer at that time anyway. He also remained outside the Americanist movement in the thirties and outside the modernist movement in the fifties and sixties. Robert Horan, a long-time friend of Samuel Barber, wrote an assessment of the composer's musical position, significantly for the League of Composer's journal Modern Music, in 1943, an article that Heyman quotes briefly. Horan says that Barber's music "is actually and absurdly romantic in an age when romanticism is the catchword of fools and prophets. It is written intensely for strings in a period when music is written intensely for brass. Its intention is wholly musical. Its convention is rare, in that it establishes a personality before an idea, but a meaning before an effect. It is economical, not of necessity but of choice. It is cerebral only in the perspective of its craft, its logic and its form. It cannot properly be called 'the answer' to anything, or the direction that music must take, for its distinction is entirely individual" (Modern Music, XX, No. 3, March-April 1943, p.168).