Musing on my muses

So here’s starting what should be a series of posts which a few of you have requested.  You’ve noted that Jesse has started posting on his blog a few items of music I’d written, and you’ve come back with wanting to know what music I listen to, and what pieces inspire me as a musician and a composer.  I’ll offer more explanation for some of my thoughts motivating this as I introduce more of these works, but I thought for a start I’d bring up one that has meaning for me a few ways.


Samuel Barber (1910 – 1981) was one of the most iconic American composers of the 20th century.  We all know his Adagio for Strings (written as the second movement of a string quartet in 1936, and rewritten for string orchestra in 1938).  It makes itself heard in movies, notably in Oliver Stone’s 1986 movie Platoon, and in recent years it has also become an unexpected hit for a number of pop musicians and remix artists, including DJ Tiësto, William Orbit, and Paul Oakenfold.

Barber was a gay man; he met his longtime partner, fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti (“Johnny”, 1911 – 2007) while at university at Curtis in Philadelphia, and the relationship only deteriorated (though never actually quite ended) during Barber’s deepening depression and failing health towards the end of his life.  Menotti is known best for his Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951).

sb & gcm

Barber on the left, Menotti on the right.

Less well known than the Adagio, though, is Barber’s Piano Concerto (Op. 38).  It was commissioned by the music publisher G. Schirmer to celebrate their centenniary in 1960, was one of the first works performed in what is now Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in NYC in 1962, and won a Pulitzer Prize in music in 1963.  As tuneful as it is in its thorny way, I love it especially for its intense violence.  This is the first movement:

ARVE Error: need id and provider

This concerto is especially close to my heart because I was learning to play it in the fall and winter of 1993, in preparation for a soloist competition with the Greater Boston Youth Symphony.  On Christmas Eve of that year I passed my hand through a window, and severed both extensor tendons in my right middle finger on the broken glass.  Two months of surgery to repair the damage and two years of physical therapy spelled the end of any future I might have dreamed of having as a pianist.  I’m long recovered from the accident and still play reasonably well, but having once being able to bash my way through this piece marked a golden age for me at a keyboard.  These days I can still stretch my hands around the second movement, but this first movement (to say nothing of the firestorm that is the third) will probably never be something I can play again.


Three gay American composers, from left to right:
Aaron Copland (1900 – 1991), Samuel Barber, and Gian Carlo Menotti.


  1. Laurentino Antão says:

    Thanks for this post. I had no idea about this tree composers.

  2. Barbara Steen says:

    Love this post.
    Thank you for sharing this part of your life. Every new thing that I learn about you…I am more intrigued.

  3. Liz says:

    Thanks for introducing Samuel Barber to me. I minimized the browser page while the video played, so I could listen to it while I did something else. However, several times I stopped what I was doing to just listen because it kept grabbing my attention. I’ll have to look for more by Barber.

    Your mention of Avery Fisher Hall brought back memories of my college “Exploring Symphony” class, which I took to meet an arts requirement. Every other week we went into Manhattan, usually to Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, to attend a concert. At the time, it was just a class to meet a requirement, but later I realized what a great opportunity that was.

    I was even fortunate enough to attend a live performance by Isaac Stern, but unfortunately, I don’t remember much of that because my seat was in the TOP ROW at Carnegie Hall. I’m not a person who does well with steep open heights, so mostly I just remember the death grip I had on the arm rests.

    I hope you’ll share more works by composers who inspire you.

  4. John K says:

    I enjoyed reading your story. Of course, I’d heard of Barber before, but I was much more familiar with Menotti. When I was a child the annual TV broadcast of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” at Christmas was a greatly anticipated event. (I wonder why it fell out of favor as a Christmas staple in the 60s.) When I was a young child I severed a tendon in my left hand and arm. It left me with limited use of my left hand, so I can sympathize with your frustration of not having full use of both of your hands. My piano (and typing) career ended before I could even read! I look forward to reading your future blog entries.

  5. Kevin says:

    Still planning to set mvmnt to your beautiful music 😉

  6. JRS3 says:

    Great Post! Thanks for sharing, have long been a fan of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. First heard it a Princess Grace’s funeral and had it played at both my parents funerals. Now , thanks to you, I have discovered his Piano Concerto. Thank You.

  7. Allison says:

    This is wonderful. Thank you for doing this. As much as I love classical music I really don’t know that much about it and mainly listen to common names and pieces. The chance to be introduced to other composers from someone in the know is exciting. I’m hoping some of your compositions will be available, I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve heard so far.

  8. Eric Farr says:

    Awesome!!!! I do remember learning about these composers in college (I was studying musical theater, before I switched to fashion) and their work is exceptionally beautiful.

  9. […] You can listen to more of Dirk’s music at, and for Dirk’s own take on his musical influences, you can read the blog post he wrote entitled “Musing on My Muses.” […]

  10. Fred N says:

    Love your music – followed the link to your Sound Cloud page. Nice article about the influence of Barber and Copland on you. I just wish the adverts on your page weren’t so explicit – then I would be able to share this post more widely!

  11. Londoner says:

    I must say, having listened to the lovely pieces posted recently on Jesse’s blog, if I didn’t already know who they were by, I’d have guessed at an English composer, possibly some unknown piece by Holst or York Bowen.

    • Dirk says:

      Wow, someone who knows who York Bowen was! I used to play his horn sonata with a friend in college, and his piano works are so much fun. I’m not sure why Berners is famous and Bowen isn’t quite so… They’re really two of the same musical cloth in many ways.

  12. Art says:

    For a perhaps lesser known, but beautiful opus, check out Barber’s Violin Concerto.

  13. Crystal says:

    I listen to ur Music everyday, well the few Jesse has posted but anyway there so beautiful and I really look forward to hearing more from u…. 🙂

  14. Chris says:

    Really enjoying the posts to SoundCloud of your compositions and pieces. I am also happy that you and Jesse are having success with getting your music out there for others to hear and making it available to us the listening (and viewing) public.

  15. Hans says:

    Your Sonata for flute and piano is amazing, it strongly reminded me of the work of Francis Poulenc for flute. Great job and keep writing more 🙂

    • Dirk says:

      The Poulenc flute sonata was definitely in my mind to some extent as I was writing this movement. I’ve no doubt it shows–Poulenc’s is a pretty unmistakeable musical voice.

      • Hans says:

        It is so true! I’m working on my new piece that reflects the work of Gustav Holst and hopefully one day you could listen to it 🙂

  16. cray says:


    Is the Flute Sonata published? I’d love to study it.

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