Suggested Listening: “Summer Music” by Samuel Barber

Every semester, my very good friend and I prepare a recital of solo and chamber repertoire from a specific country.  Last semester’s theme was British, and this semester is American… and today’s the day!  AHHHHH!  *panic attack commence*  As I scramble to make reeds and do some last-minute practicing, I thought I’d get in the mood by sharing one of the pieces on our program for this week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTICSummer Music, composed by Samuel Barber, performed below by Ensemble Wien-Berlin (Germany).

About the Composer:

When Samuel Barber (1910-1981) was nine years old, he wrote the following note to his 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….To begin with I was not meant to be an athlete.  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).”  Barber’s musical path certainly was set early on—he began studying piano at age six, and by ten he had completed his first opera.  At fourteen, Barber enrolled at the Curtis Institute as a triple major in piano, voice, and composition, and by his early twenties, he was a classical music celebrity.  Though incorporating modernist elements, his music was known for its old-fashioned lyricism.  He is widely considered one of the greatest American composers, and one of the most accessible composers of the 20th century.

About the Piece:

Barber did not set out to write Summer Music — it just happened.  An organization in Detroit commissioned him to compose a septet for the principal wind, string, and piano players of the Detroit Symphony… but Summer Music for woodwind quintet is what they got instead.  Barber didn’t have any specific image or story in mind when he titled the piece — rather, he was referring to the idea of summer.  The idea of lazy days, and of glasses of lemonade, and of thick, cottony heat that makes the world seem to move in slow motion.  As he put it himself: “It’s supposed to be evocative of summer — summer meaning languid, not killing mosquitoes.”  The opening tempo is marked “slow and indolent,” and the opening theme comes to define the whole piece — bluesy melody, reluctant rhythm, hazy harmonies.  The instruments seem to interact with each other, whispering and chattering and at times competing.  The piece is so intensely colorful — I know this is an abstract concept for the classical music skeptic to grasp, but if I got anything out of 7th-grade art class, it’s that different colors convey different moods.  And Summer Music is a veritable rainbow of moods — exhaustion, anticipation, relief — all playing out over the course of a hot summer afternoon.


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