Barber: Symphony No. 1 (In One Movement), Opus 9

SAMUEL OSMOND BARBER II

BORN: March 9, 1910. West Chester, PA

DIED: January 23, 1981. New York City, NY

COMPOSED: Begun in Maine in August 1935 and completed February 24, 1936 in Roquebrune, France. The composer revised the work considerably during the winter of 1942-43, completing the final version in January 1943. The symphony is dedicated to Gian Carlo Menotti

WORLD PREMIERE: December 13, 1936. Bernardino Molinari conducted the Augusteo (now Santa Cecilia) Orchestra in Rome

US PREMIERE: January 21, 1937, Rudolph Ringwall and the Cleveland Orchestra   

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—January 1963. Howard Mitchell conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 20 mins

THE BACKSTORY The low opus number of nine suggests that Samuel Barber’s First Symphony (In One Movement)—as he titled it—was an early work, which it was not exactly. He was twenty-five years old when he wrote it, but he had been composing music since he was seven and therefore had eighteen years of experience already behind him. He was fortunate to have been born into a family attuned to recognize his musical gifts. Though his parents were not professional musicians, his aunt, the contralto Louise Homer, was a mainstay at the Metropolitan Opera, and her husband, Sidney Homer, was a composer, particularly admired for his voluminous production of art songs.

When Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music opened its doors to receive its very first students, on October 1, 1924, the fourteen-year old Barber was second in line. (A violinist managed to pass through the portal before him: Max Aronoff, who became well known as a member of the Curtis String Quartet.) At Curtis, Barber studied principally piano, with Isabelle Vengerova; composition, with Rosario Scalero; and voice, with the baritone Emilio de Gogorza, who was a colleague of Barber’s aunt at the Met. He developed into a fine baritone himself; you might still find a copy of his 1935 recording as vocal soloist in his own Dover Beach, in which he was joined by the Curtis String Quartet.

In the spring of 1935, he received two awards in quick succession: a Pulitzer traveling scholarship (announced on May 6) and the Prix de Rome (on May 9). The panel granting the latter cited him as “the most talented and deserving student of music in America” and provided for a two-year residency at the American Academy in Rome, where Barber arrived in early October of that year. But before his trip, he and his fellow Curtis student Gian Carlo Menotti (who at that point was also his romantic partner) spent the summer in Camden, Maine. Menotti was working on an opera, Amelia Goes to the Ball, and Barber embarked on what would become his First Symphony (In One Movement)—or, as he put it in a letter to a friend that summer, “an orchestra piece of ambitious tendencies.”

He took his incipient symphony along to Rome but during his early months there he got sidetracked writing songs instead. He showed little enthusiasm for interacting with other creative types ensconced at the Villa Aurelia, the home of the American Academy. He did at least relish the opportunity to explore Rome, and his home base there afforded a point of departure for travels elsewhere in Europe. His first of several getaways took him to the Anabel Taylor Foundation in Roquebrune (a.k.a Roquebrune-Cap-Martin), a well-heeled town on the French Riviera—not an alpine village, as is usually reported. Although it was an independent organization providing residencies to composers, it maintained a relationship with the American Academy in Rome and accordingly hosted a number of the Academy’s musicians through the years. It was during his stay there from February 15 through March 1, 1936, that Barber completed his symphony, signing off on his manuscript on February 24.

THE MUSIC The conductor Bernardino Molinari expressed the desire to conduct the Symphony’s first performance, finding it “moderna ma seria” (modern but serious) and promising two weeks of rehearsals with the Philharmonic Augusteo Orchestra, as Barber reported in a letter. After one of those rehearsals, the orchestra’s tuba player expressed to the composer his enthusiasm about a passage near the Symphony’s end: “I’ve been waiting fifteen years for a part like that!” The premiere marked a big week for Barber. The Symphony was unveiled at the Villa Aurelia on a Sunday, and on Monday, in the same venue, the Pro Arte String Quartet premiered his String Quartet, the slow movement of which would go on to superstardom as his Adagio for Strings.

The next year, the work was performed by four further orchestras: in January by the Cleveland Orchestra, in March by the New York Philharmonic, in June by the London Symphony Orchestra, and in July by the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival. The composer supplied a descriptive program commentary for the New York performances:

The form of my Symphony in One Movement is a synthetic treatment of the four-movement classical symphony. It is based on three themes of the initial Allegro non troppo, which retain throughout the work their fundamental character. The Allegro opens with the usual exposition of a main theme, a more lyrical second theme, and a closing theme. After a brief development of the three themes, instead of the customary recapitulation, the first theme, in diminution forms the basis of a scherzo section (Vivace). The second theme (oboe over muted strings) then appears in augmentation, in an extended Andante tranquillo. An intense crescendo introduces the finale, which is a short passacaglia based on the first theme (introduced by the violoncelli and contrabassi), over which, together with figures from other themes, the closing theme is woven, thus serving as a recapitulation for the entire symphony.

The world premiere received mixed reviews. Barber later suggested that “at the time it was thought too dark-toned, too Nordic and Sibelian,” at least by the standards of Italian music lovers. The American performances earned more consistently appreciative reviews.

The comparisons to Sibelius seem quite on the mark, given the Symphony’s generally ominous mien as well as such specific effects as menacing utterances of brass instruments, powerful use of the lower voices in the orchestra, and melodies decorated by undulating intervals of the third. Pointing out a resemblance to Sibelius was a high compliment. Although that composer is certainly popular today, he was revered even more in the 1920s and ’30s, when many connoisseurs considered his symphonies to be the absolute pinnacle of modern orchestral writing. His Seventh (and last) Symphony had been unveiled as recently as 1924. It, too, was a symphony whose distinct sections were compressed into a single movement. Among its appreciators was Barber. In fact, on the same pages he sketched his own First Symphony (In One Movement) he wrote out an analysis of Sibelius’s Seventh, leaving no doubt that the pieces were connected in his mind.

Curiously, one of the critics who did not point out the kinship was Olin Downes, Sibelius’s most devoted acolyte in the United States. He surely noticed it but may have chosen to withhold what would have been read as unstinting praise. Instead, he suggested in his New York Times review that “the form that Mr. Barber has elected to fill with music seems planned in advance rather than inspired by the potency of his melodic ideas”—perhaps a tacit acknowledgement of how beholden the piece was to Sibelius’s Seventh. He found much to appreciate all the same, particular in the part of the score that signified the slow “third movement,” the section that spotlights the wide-spanning oboe melody. “In these pages, . . . there is broad line and the sense of a real germination of ideas,” he wrote, and he summarized his overall impression in terms that pointed toward a bright future: “The work has the feel and certain tangible evidences of a gifted young musician of 26 seeking and gradually discovering means of self-expression.”—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

(April 2019)