Samuel Barber’s music has remained popular since his death, although his most performed works were written in the first half of his life. Attesting his importance, in 1966 the Metropolitan Opera commissioned Antony and Cleopatra for the opening of its new house at Lincoln Center. Due mostly to the lavish and complex production by Franco Zeffi relli that included live elephants, the premiere was a disaster that tarnished Barber’s music and reputation. The Adagio for Strings (1936) is Barber’s most played composition, but many of his songs are performed, woodwind players like his quintet Summer Music (1956), pianists his Excursions (1944), and from orchestras we frequently hear Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947) and his Symphony No. 1 in One Movement (1936, revised in 1945). Barber wrote Symphony No. 2 in 1950 but later withdrew it.
Classical composers would view their first symphony as an entrée into the world of concert music, a showpiece of talent and seriousness, and hopefully their fi rst “magnum opus.” Brahms labored for decades to produce his fi rst symphony while Shostakovich’s fi rst shocked with its spare, reserved, sardonic nature. Barber’s fi rst symphony lies somewhere in between, a serious piece for large orchestra but in a single compact movement rather than the traditional four with pauses in between. But Barber amply showed off his talent with a variety of sophisticated compositional techniques, masterful orchestration, and melodic ingenuity.
The single movement is tightly constructed, with four connected sections corresponding to the four movements of a symphony: a fast loud opening section followed by a faster section in triple time serving as a scherzo, a slow section marked Andante tranquillo, and a stately finale in the form of a passacaglia (a process similar to Pachelbel’s canon). All of the major themes are introduced in the opening section. The first broad melody you hear is the key to the entire work. It reappears disguised in quick repeated notes as the main theme of the scherzo, and is the repeated bass of the final passacaglia. The musical language is tonal but chromatic and “modern.” In fact, you might think at times of classic Hollywood film scores from the likes of Bernard Herrmann or Max Steiner. Whether Samuel Barber heard these scores and learned from them or film composers learned from Samuel Barber is a question worth exploring.