Monday, April 23, 2018

A Great Work for Piano - and Two Famous Names in Pop Music...

The cast of characters:
Irving Berlin
Richard Rodgers
Vladimir Horowitz
Samuel Barber
The League of Composers -

In the year 1950, a new work for solo piano  was introduced. This work was commissioned by the money of Irving Berlin (remember "White Christmas?") and Richard Rogers (remember "My Funny Valentine?"),  in an organized move by way of  The  League of Composers, a group created for the promulgation of supporting new works written by contemporary American composers. That particular commission was directed to composer Samuel Barber to write a major work for the piano.
The result was the Piano Sonata.
When I think of Samuel Barber, his famous Adagio for Strings is what I hear first almost every time.
An atmosphere wafting from the High Baroque, especially from  that unique sense of spirituality emanating from the work of Handel and Bach. The "Arioso", or sections of  "The Messiah" come to light. But Barber does NOT sound like either of these giants - what is fascinating to me about this composer from Pennsylvania is that the language of his music bears its own uniqueness, and is like no other. The creations of Barber are certainly not  avant-garde; there are no ostentatious  sounds of  a revolutionary new concept   thrown at the listener.  What amazes me is  the natural sense of lubricity in the core of his language. There is a  view of the Baroque, at times; or an aural connection with the Romantic that is totally disconnected, stylistically, from the great 19th century masters.
Barber, for me, is one of the most stunning originals I know of.
In this Piano Sonata, for instance, he uses chromatic and diatonic language freely, along with the twelve-tone system, all in cohabitation with one another, in some of the most brilliant writing I know of coming out of the 20th century. In the final movement, he brings the Fugue into focus, using syncopation, jazz and "blues" to totally obliterate any trace of the Baroque influence in this form of writing. It's like no other Fugue I know.
By the way, Barber chose Vladimir Horowitz to premier the Sonata in 1950. They had known one another prior to the writing of this piece. Barber had originally considered it as a three- movement composition, but Horowitz shouldered his way into the picture and insisted that there be a "flashy"  ending to the music. Barber resisted, resulting in Horowitz calling him a "constipated composer."
Infuriated, Barber answered by writing a 4th movement in just a matter of hours, which IS that fantastic 'fugue' I had just mentioned - all jotted down in one day.
I often think of this composition as perhaps the most important large-scale piano solo creation by an American composer in the 20th century.
And the luminosity that Horowitz imparts. It's veritably as if this sonata was written for him.
Do listen.  And be overwhelmed...


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