Samuel Barber’s “Let Down the Bars, O Death”: Conspirare

It was during the summer of 1936 that Samuel Barber composed the String Quartet that would give rise to the iconic Adagio for Strings. During the same summer, Barber created an a cappella choral setting of Emily Dickinson’s 1891 poem, Let Down the Bars, O Death. It unfolds as a somber, homophonic chorale. As with the Adagio, it reaches upwards in search of a searing climax. When the poem’s first line returns, the hushed opening phrase is transformed …

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Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto: Straddling the Tonal Precipice

Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, Op. 38 is lushly cinematic. It is an exhilarating drama between two dueling titans—the brazen, summit-scaling solo piano and the twentieth century orchestra, with its vast sonic power. The Concerto’s expansive Neo-Romantic lines straddle the precipice between tonality and serialism. The music never loses its tonal bearings, yet it often ventures far into a tumultuous chromatic sea. The legendary American music publisher G. Schirmer commissioned Barber to write the …

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Samuel Barber’s Nocturne, Op. 33: Aftertones of Chopin

Samuel Barber gave his Nocturne, Op. 33 for solo piano the subtitle, “Homage to John Field.” Field (1782-1837) was the Irish pianist and composer who is credited with inventing the nocturne. Barber’s piece, written in 1959, is as much a dreamy reflection on the Romantic nocturne itself, with all of its atmospheric allusions to the poetry of the night. Perhaps it is the spirit of Frédéric Chopin, whose twenty-one nocturnes pushed the …

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Remembering James Buswell

The violinist, conductor, and educator James Buswell passed away on Tuesday. He was 74. At the age of seven, Buswell became the youngest soloist ever to appear with the New York Philharmonic. He went on to perform with the world’s top orchestras and as a regular member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. From 1986 to 2014 he served on the faculty of New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. …

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The Artistry of Eileen Farrell: Five Essential Recordings

Thursday marks the centennial of the birth of the legendary American soprano, Eileen Farrell (1920-2002). Hailed as possessing “one of the largest and most radiant operatic voices of the 20th century,” Farrell was a remarkably versatile artist. In a career spanning nearly 60 years, she was equally at home in the world of opera, jazz, and popular music. She hated categories, and in an interview during the final years of her life, …

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Five Excerpts from Barber’s “Vanessa”

Samuel Barber’s Vanessa premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on this date in 1958. Originally set in four acts, the opera’s dark story and libretto were created by Gian Carlo Menotti. Its atmosphere may have been inspired by Seven Gothic Tales, a collection of short stories by the Danish author Karen Blixen (who wrote under the pen name, Isak Dinesen). Here is a summery of the synopsis: Vanessa, a grand middle-aged lady, has been living in isolation …

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Three Youthful American Overtures: Music of Barber, Copland, and Schuman

Festive American music will be as much on the menu as hot dogs and hamburgers this week as we celebrate Independence Day across the United States. In anticipation of the holiday, here are three thrilling and festive American overtures from the mid twentieth century. The indomitable spirit of youth permeates all three of these pieces: Barber: Overture to “The School for Scandal,” Op. 5 This was the young 21-year-old Samuel Barber’s first …

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