Program Notes

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Summer Music, Op. 31 for Wind Quintet (1955)

Notes for: July 20, 2010

Samuel Barber followed an unusual career path for a composer, starting as a singer rather than as an instrumentalist. At the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, his initial interest was in training his baritone voice, and as a young man he accepted a number of singing engagements, even giving recitals on NBC radio. But his talents as a composer soon won out – before graduation, he won a $1,200 prize for a student composition, the Overture to The School For Scandal, still a concert favorite.

However, Barber’s training as a singer had a lasting effect on his work as a composer – namely, in the long lyrical lines that characterize most of his music. Because of this lyrical gift as well as his conservative harmonic language, Barber was often termed the last of the American romantics. Concert audiences still find his music among the more readily accessible of 20th century American composers.

Barber was also highly regarded by his colleagues for his elegant craftsmanship, refined taste, and mastery of instrumental color and technique. He won many honors – two Pulitzer prizes, the New York Music Critics Circle Award and membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also received commissions from the Metropolitan Opera, Martha Graham, the Boston Symphony, the New York City Ballet and the Library of Congress.

Summer Music originated with a commission – one of the most unusual in American music. In 1953, Barber was asked by the Chamber Music Society of Detroit to compose a septet to mark the society’s 10th anniversary season the following year. The music – for the unusual combination of three woodwinds, three strings and piano – was to be performed by the principal instrumentalists of the Detroit Symphony.

Barber waived his usual fee, accepting instead the proceeds from audience contributions with the society guaranteeing $2,000. As Barber recalled, “The idea was that if this caught on, music societies around the country would take up similar collections and use the funds to commission young local composers who needed experience and exposure.”

As things turned out, Barber was preoccupied with his opera Vanessa, and was unable to meet Detroit’s timetable. In the summer of 1954, however, Barber heard a concert at Blue Hill, Maine, by the New York Woodwind Quintet. A number of leading composers – Elliott Carter, Irving Fine, Paul Hindemith, Jean Francaix, Gunther Schuller and Heitor Villa Lobos – had written music for the New Yorkers, and Barber now asked for their cooperation in fulfilling the Detroit commission.

Over the next year, Barber attended rehearsals by the New Yorkers to learn more about the technical resources and limitations of their instruments and about their blended tone colors. As Barber started to work on the new piece, he brought sections of it to the Quintet for trial readings. The result was not the septet of mixed instruments as originally commissioned but a wind quintet for the New Yorkers’ conventional grouping -- flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn.

The premiere of Summer Music finally took place in Detroit in March, 1956. Subsequently, Barber -- still working with the New York Wind Quintet – revised and shortened the work. The New Yorkers then performed it extensively at Harvard, during a three-month tour of South America, and at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Its title notwithstanding, the work is not program music – Barber had no particular scene or event in mind. Rather, the music, particularly in its slower sections, expresses the relaxation and ease characteristic of the summertime. In Barber’s own words, “It’s supposed to be evocative of summer -- summer meaning languid, not killing mosquitoes.”

Structurally, the piece is a free interplay of several melodic strands. The first, heard at the outset, is a brief phrase played by the bassoon and horn and answered by the flute; the phrase is repeated and answered by the clarinet. Repeated descending steps by the horn in a short-long rhythm usher in and then accompany the second strand, a long singing melody for the oboe. After an abrupt speed-up in tempo, the third strand, shared by several instruments, is in a perky rhythmic pattern. These elements are blended and seasoned with brilliant virtuoso demands on the instrumentalists.

Copyright © 2010 by Willard J. Hertz