Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Samuel Barber - The Greatest Sonata of the 20th Century?

Please be reminded that in the over two years since the inception of this blog, my personal "game" has been never to have to refer to any paper, document, the Internet or any source other than my memory - the one time I broke my own rule was to have to find, word-for-word, an interview by one of Napoleon's officers when he visited Beethoven in Vienna. Other than that blog, all the material you read is from this addled mass we call a brain. I wonder when I will run out of material? Things keep popping up, much to my surprise!
At any rate, I recalled this morning that the American composer, Samuel Barber, was born a century ago, in 1910 (I'm a bit late, as I believe that he was born in the early part of that year, either in January or February).
The primary issue about Barber, for me, is that he truly was 'classical' in his presentations, regardless of the use of the tone-row, which we do hear in some of his compositions. His melodies are redolent with a kind of tonal gravitation that bears true beauty, almost as if he were writing in a place in his mind that belonged to a preceding century. His great Adagio is an example of that.
However, I would rather discuss one of his most powerful creations; that is, his sonata for piano, Opus 26.
It was, as I recall, finished in 1949, and contrary to some material I had come across as having been the one piece that Horowitz ever commissioned, it was, in reality, commissioned by the League of Composers.
The sonata has four movements, and is marvelously crafted for the piano and reserved for a true virtuoso. The legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz greedily gobbled it up and recorded it the following year, I believe, and is one of the great pianist's most brilliant ventures into music that was written within his lifetime.
The melodies are compellingly attractive and with great direction, and the classical base of Barber's language pervades from beginning to end. There are shards of the "blues," from time to time, enabling the American fusion to come forth, along with the composer's great ability to project motive structure in a fluidity that binds all four movements into one giant structure.
The most brilliant tactic, in my view, is the clever way that Barber escapes the tentacles of Baroque imagery in his fugue (final movement) simply by employing jazz-like syncopation in the primary subject. This fugue is one of the greater moments in this truly iconic composition - upon giving much thought about the music, I have come around to consider this sonata as powerful as any written in the twentieth century - I'm sure that some of you may disagree with my opinion; do keep in mind that this is my opinion only, not a proclamation!
Listen to Horowitz doing the sonata - it is available, I'm quite sure.

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