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CD Review

Samuel Barber & William Schuman

Choral Music

  • Samuel Barber:
  • Twelfth Night
  • To be Sung on the Water
  • Reincarnations
  • Agnus Dei
  • Heaven-Haven
  • Sure on this shining night *
  • The Monk and His Cat *
  • The Virgin Martyrs
  • Let down the bars, O Death
  • God's Grandeur
  • William Schuman:
  • Perceptions
  • Mail-Order Madrigals
* Anthony Saunders, piano
The Joyful Company of Singers/Peter Broadbent
Academy Sound & Vision CDDCA939 66:23
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Huzzahs for the program. Modified rapture for the performances.

Neither Barber nor Schuman's reputation depends on their choral music, though Schuman wrote a lot of it and Barber made at least three major contributions to the genre. Barber contented himself to work in general a rather conservative vein, which owes a lot to Brahms' choral music. Almost all of it, however, is first-rate. Schuman created a unique choral style. Some of his works I like better than others, but he has written, I believe, choral masterpieces.

Barber read several languages, always on the lookout for texts to set. Schuman's primary poetic inspiration was Whitman. Schuman essentially developed the musical concerns of his teacher Roy Harris in his own way. He also inherited from Harris the idea of trying to sum up the idea and ideals of the United States in music. Where Harris relied on a hearty, sometimes too hearty, optimism, Schuman carried in himself the burden of the big-city skeptic. Schuman was ultimately optimistic, but he saw barriers.

As Mellers points out in his liner notes to this recording, Barber's main creative impulse was nostalgia for a golden past and an innocence lost. Here and there in this recital, I found myself thinking of parlor songs à la Tibbett and McCormack and of comfortable WASP-y churches. It's not that the music itself is all that comfortable, but it does seem to yearn for that comfort. Also, in addition to superlative musical invention and craft, Barber possessed an unusually clear sense of occasion and of program, perhaps something he picked up from his illustrious uncle and aunt, Sidney and Louise Homer. Indeed, well into Barber's career, he writes Sidney Homer of concerts he's attended and almost always finds something to say of the place and function of his piece within the program. This served him exceptionally well in his song and choral writing. He had the gift of making a set that would "go." This is evident in his a cappella masterpiece Reincarnations, a triptych of poems by the Irish writer James Stephens. No theme unites the three poems. The first and last are love poems, but the second is a dirge for an Irish hero. Nevertheless, musically they hang together as a group – God knows how.

Barber wrote most of his choral music before 1943. In the Thirties, he was given charge of the choir at Curtis Institute and, like Brahms, wrote pieces for his choir to sing. Barber criticized himself ruthlessly and suppressed a number of these works, including a motet for double choir on words from the Book of Job. As far as I know, it's not published, and I've not heard it. But what I do know of Barber's choral writing makes me want someone to record it. However, the CD opens with his penultimate choral work, Op. 42 (1968), that groups "Twelfth Night," a setting of a wonderful poem by British poet Laurie Lee, and "To Be Sung on the Water," a less wonderful poem by Louise Bogan. Again, nothing really unites these different texts, but again, they make a nice group. If you know Barber's choral music, "Twelfth Night" works familiar ground and finds gold. The poem moves from darkness ("No night could be darker than this night") to light ("the sun of heaven, and the son of God"). Barber had no formal religious belief. At best, he was agnostic, but religious imagery and intelligent explorations of religious ideas appealed to him. His harmonies take the spiritual journey of the poem – from grave to radiant. Much of its punch derives from new-minted, surprising chord progressions and pungent dissonance, an idiom Barber carries to the end of the setting. The Bogan talks of the fragility and transitoriness of life and love – an idea Barber returns to again and again, in such major works as Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Mélodies passagères. The harmonies here flicker far more insubstantially and the piece is united as much by a rhythmic figure (depicting the lazy dip of an oar into the water) as anything else.

Reincarnations comes from Barber's early and middle periods. "Mary Hynes" dates from 1937, while the final two parts were completed in 1940. The first number, in praise of the lovely "Mary Hynes," falls into two sections: excited exclamations and a kind of hushed wonder at the thought of such beauty. The first section requires a virtuoso choir as the music consists of wide, extremely quick runs, momentarily settling on consonances which make their full effect only when their in perfect tune. The second part requires a choir that can spin out long lines with beautiful tone. "Anthony O'Daly," as far as pure composition goes, is the most striking of the set. The main burden of it moves in 3 / 4, but over a bass pedal E in 5 / 4. It is essentially one long crescendo, as all creation joins in the lament. Barber uses canon to screw up the tension. "The Coolin" (colleen) continues the ecstatic lyricism of the second part of "Mary Hynes." The counterpoint is both exceptionally beautiful and exceptionally restrained.

The Agnus Dei is, for me, the joker in the pack. It's not really a choral piece at all, but a choral arrangement Barber made in 1967 of his hugely successful Adagio for Strings. I've heard that Robert Shaw suggested the arrangement, which I consider one of his worst ideas. I love the Adagio for Strings, and I respect it as great string writing, all the more impressive since Barber's instrument was the piano. However, the deep pedal points of the original don't translate well to choral basses, and the words I've always regarded as stuck on, rather than wedded to the music. In Barber's original music for chorus, basses have something better to do than to hold a note. I don't deny that it moves listeners (which may be the most important criterion), just as the original and the string-orchestra arrangements do. The Adagio would probably do that if arranged for tuned percussion. It's just that Barber wrote better for chorus than this.

"Heaven-Haven" and "Sure on this shining night" come from Barber's Op. 13, songs for voice and piano (1938). Barber arranged them for chorus and piano in 1961 and 1941, respectively. Both enjoyed a vogue among choirs, especially "Sure on this shining night," a genuine hit, but they don't seem to appear on many programs these days. Barber succeeds better here, possibly because he actually has to make up parts, rather than transcribe them. The line from the Agee poem, "All is healed, all is health," and the harmonic progression at that point provides one of those rare moments of transcendence only music gives you. "The Monk and His Cat" is part of Barber's song cycle Hermit Songs, premièred in 1953 by a very young Leontyne Price, with Barber at the piano. Barber himself arranged "The Monk" – I don't know when – but again it's not a success. The extra voices add very little, if anything.

"Let down the bars, O Death" (1936) is one of those miracles: a great choral piece within the capabilities of amateur choirs. Barber's choice of Dickinson as his poet shows great canniness, since at the time she hadn't anything like her present eminence. I'm not much of a Dickinsonian, but this is one of my favorite poems – with a beautifully unforced image of sheep coming home to the shepherd Death – probably because of Barber's setting. Its harmonic idiom anticipates the far more complex "Twelfth Night."

The program includes a previously unpublished Barber choral piece – an elaborate setting of Hopkins's holy sonnet "God's Grandeur." One hears in it passages that turn up again in slightly altered form in the Reincarnations, which may be why Barber never published it. But it's terrific on its own. Hopkins in his full-blown "Anglo-savage" maturity is notoriously difficult to set, mainly because his rhythms keep grinding to a halt and his nesting of ideas and images seem beyond music's capability to contain. Again, Barber performs a miracle. I've not heard this piece before, and already I think it one of his best.

Schuman's choral writing strongly resembles his orchestral writing: strongly syllabic and declamatory, often in two parts, mirror writing (where bass and soprano lines move in opposite directions) leading to much of the dissonance, and counterpoint usually implied rather than explicit. It is a lean, mean, ruthlessly austere style and one surprisingly capable of encompassing a wide expressive range. Barber uses more notes and seems more expressively confined. Perceptions culls aphorisms from Whitman, while Mail-Order Madrigals riff off "found poems" from the 1897 Sears, Roebuck catalogue. Unfortunately, Broadbent and his singers miss the style completely, indulging in a creamy line blander than tapioca. Schuman needs a choir willing to press itself on one's attention, rather than politely cough in the background. Listening to Broadbent, for example, you'd never guess that Schuman's madrigals were intentionally funny. To hear how these and Perceptions should go, listen to Gregg Smith on Vox CD3X 3037. You also get Schuman's magnificent Prélude for Voices (text by Thomas Wolfe) and Carols of Death, as well as choral pieces by Ned Rorem and the shockingly neglected Louise Talma.

Just how good is The Joyful Company of Singers? Well, they definitely perform at a professional level. Diction is okay. Intonation is fine, if not thrilling. They make good work of the dense counterpoint in, say, Barber's God's Grandeur. However, rhythm could be better and attacks less spongy. Broadbent, for example, ruins the opening to "Mary Hynes" with a too-slow tempo and the choir's slightly plummy enunciation. We no longer get a sense of virtuosic leaping over danger and sparks. It's a kind of Errol-Flynn opening for a choir, and Broadbent gives us C. Aubrey Smith instead. Gregg Smith again set the gold standard on an old Everest LP (along with electrifying accounts of Schuman's Carols of Death and Copland's In the Beginning), but Charles Bruffy and the Kansas City Chorale also outstrip The Joyful Company in their Barber set on Klavier KCD 11052. Furthermore, The Joyful Company does lack intensity in the Schuman, as well as an especially beautiful choral tone – the kind that makes warriors weep – in the Barber pieces. The Agnus Dei (predictably) pokes along, mostly due to Barber, but it's a trap a great choir doesn't fall into. The Agnus Dei's best recording remains Dale Warland's on American Choral Catalogue ACC 120. All in all, I'd buy The Joyful Company for the Barber repertoire you're not likely to find elsewhere.

Copyright © 2002, Steve Schwartz