Completed in 1944, Samuel Barber’s Capricorn Concerto for Flute, Oboe, Trumpet, and Strings is a twentieth century homage to the Baroque concerto grosso. This is the form in which solo instrumental voices engage in contrapuntal conversation with one another, and with a full ensemble. It is a thrilling dialogue which plays on the contrast between large (grosso) and intimate forces. Barber’s scoring mirrors the instrumentation of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2.
The Capricorn Concerto begins with an exuberant introduction in the strings in which the first movement’s motifs are tossed out playfully onto the table. Following this brief introduction, the oboe introduces a fugue subject which is picked up, successively, by the flute and trumpet before moving into the strings. As the first movement (Allegro ma non troppo) unfolds, contemplative moments are interrupted by boisterous frivolity. These two contrasting worlds coexist peacefully, and the dichotomy remains unresolved in the coda section.
The second movement (Allegretto) begins with a quirky dance which is propelled forward by a pizzicato line in the violas. Rhythmically, it feels continuously unpredictable and off balance. A serene respite comes in the movement’s middle section with a lush blanket of strings and a pastoral statement by the oboe.
The final movement (Allegro con brio) begins with a vigorous announcement in the trumpet which echoes similar fanfare lines in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. The Concerto concludes with a mixture of shimmering nostalgia and unabashed joy.
Barber wrote the Capricorn Concerto while completing military service during the Second World War. Following his transfer to the Army Air Corps in Fort Worth, Texas, his musical abilities came to the attention of General Barton K. Yount. Yount believed that Barber could make his greatest contribution to the war effort as a composer, and granted him the “best working conditions possible.” Barber composed the Concerto at a newly purchased home in Mount Kisco, New York which he shared with Gian Carlo Menotti. The home was nicknamed “Capricorn” because of the generous amount of sunlight it received during winter months.
I. Allegro ma non troppo:
III. Allegro con brio:
- Barber: Capricorn Concerto, Op. 21 for Flute, Oboe, Trumpet and Strings, Leonard Slatkin, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra Amazon
- Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra (1959 recording)
- Marin Alsop and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Featured Image: “Cobb’s Barns and Distant Houses” (1930–1933), Edward Hopper
2 thoughts on “Samuel Barber’s Capricorn Concerto: An Homage to the Baroque”
I’ve loved this spiky little piece ever since I was first introduced to Barber’s music almost half a century ago. It’s so polished, so strangely aloof and yet affectionate in its neoclassical homage to the past. Right at its heart is that brief, “serene respite” as you put it – a nostalgic reminder that Barber’s music is so often shot through with nostalgia and a quiet sadness.
Thank you so much for all the wonderful posts – I’m discovering so much through the listeners’ club.
Thank you for your comment, James. I’m really glad you are enjoying the posts!