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).
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:
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.