Barber's Agnus Dei

At the age of nine, Samuel Barber (1910 –1981) wrote to his mother:

Dear Mother: I have written this to tell you my worrying secret. Now don't cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now without any nonsense….I was meant to be a composer, and will be I'm sure. I'll ask you one more thing.—Don't ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football.—Please—Sometimes I've been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very).

This excerpt tells us two essential things about Barber.  First: from early on, he knew himself and what he wanted to accomplish. He had a clear, simple, structurally complete vision of his talent and what he was going to do with it, and was forthright in expressing himself.  Second: also from early on, he was prone to melancholy self-reflection, tinged with insecurity and the fear of not being accepted.

Barber was fortunate in his resource-rich childhood.  He received the informed encouragement and the backing to follow his intentions.  Already by the age of fourteen he was a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied piano, composition, and voice.  The conservatory’s founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, took a personal interest in him, and connected him with the Schirmer family, who became his lifelong publishers.  At the tender age of eighteen he won the Joseph H. Bearns Prize for his violin sonata, entitled Fortune’s Favorite Child. This seemingly autobiographical work is now lost, perhaps destroyed by Barber himself in later, harder times.

On November 5, 1938, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, arranged from the slow movement of his String Quartet, Opus 11, was performed on a national radio broadcast by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arturo Toscanini, who declared the piece “Semplice e bella” (simple and beautiful).  It is difficult for us to imagine, today, the impact this had on Barber’s career.  Americans universally regarded Toscanini as the greatest of classical musicians in the European tradition, though exiled from his native Italy by the rise of Fascism, and committed to the United States as his artistic and political home.  His public support made Barber an immediate sensation, the most discussed, visible, celebrated composer in America before he was even thirty years old.  Toscanini and his orchestra took the work on tour to England and South America, and recorded it in 1942—his first recording of a work by an American. To this day, Adagio for Strings is one of the most recorded works in the classical repertoire.

Toscanini’s support for Barber, and the public’s immediate love of the Adagio for Strings, caused some critical backlash—a backlash which dogged Barber for the rest of his career.   Critics faulted Toscanini for promoting a composer whose voice seemed so conservative and so rooted in nineteenth-century European Romanticism, rather than using his influence to champion American composers whose works were more “modern” or more “American.”  Ashley Pettis, of the New York Times, wrote that he had “listened in vain for evidence of youthful vigor, freshness or fire, for use of a contemporary idiom (which was characteristic of every composer whose works have withstood the vicissitudes of time).  Mr. Barber’s was ‘authentic,’ dull, ‘serious’ music—utterly anachronistic as the utterance of a young man of 28, A.D. 1938!” (November 13, 1938).  Barber’s partner, composer Gian Carlo Menotti, responded by wondering if there was room in art for only one way to be modern, and suggested that it might be Barber, not the “modernists,” who was truly progressive by being unafraid to use the models of the tonal masters.  He finished his defense of Barber by proclaiming, “It is time for someone to make a reaction against a school of composition that has bored concert audiences for twenty years” (New York Times, November 20, 1938).

The passage of time has demonstrated that Barber refused, as clearly as the most “modern” of his contemporaries, to satisfy expectations. He expressed himself in a personal, direct, inevitable language that happened to be accessible, and based on music from the past. We see in retrospect that he did not choose the easy way, at all; he suffered for his choice, was weakened by depression and alcoholism, and died before critical reappraisal of his works and career caught up with him.  Later in the 20th century – in the 1980s and 1990s – a whole wave of composers would turn away from their own “modernist” 20th century idioms to rediscover similar lyrical, spiritual languages. Barber pre-dated them by 50 years; in 1938 he was an avant-garde-anti-avant-gardist (Svend Brown).

Agnus Dei is Barber’s 1967 transcription of the Adagio, for 8-part chorus. The Adagio has from the very beginning been associated in the public imagination with elegiac mourning, nostalgia, love and passion; in transcribing it for voices, with the “Lamb of God” text from the mass, Barber acknowledged and “brought to the surface the work's sense of spirituality”(Graham Olson). His propensity toward melancholy self-reflection, referred to above, is ennobled through this music, and becomes a sort of self-acknowledged cultural melancholia, something we all share and to which we all can relate.  Seventy-five years have not in the least dimmed the appeal of this music.