Spring Symphonies: 48/60 - Barber: Symphony No 2
The Second Symphony of Samuel Barber raises some very interesting questions about composers, withdrawn works, war and music. It was written in 1942 to a commission from the US Air Force, The 32 year old composer joined the Army Air Corps and embedded himself on airbases to get a feel for active service and wrote the symphony the next year. It was premiered in 1944 by Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on March 3.
The composer revised it in 1947 and withdrew it in 1964. He cited various different reasons including that it was propaganda. Barber died in 1981 and some orchestral parts were discovered in England in 1984 and it has been recorded since it’s re-publication in 1990.
For many listeners the world of Samuel Barber revolves around one piece - his Adagio for Strings but he was a prolific writer and his music for me has always been a degree more sophisticated, urban and heartfelt than that of Copland or Bernstein. His reputation built on early works such as The School for Scandal and his bless’d Adagio led him to fame and he won the Pulitzer Prize twice.
This work begins with an obvious alarm, a heart in mouth portent and some music which drags itself into an Allegro of great energy. One might imagine the scene at a wartime airfield as the airmen are called to go into the skies. Its all quite descriptive in that sense. The second part is much more bucolic and might be felt as the freedom of the skies. Barber said much of the work is about flying. The mood is broken by more active staccato passage one might imagine strafing guns below or behind and then a return to a more tranquil aspect. There are throughout reciprocating figures as if mimicking the noise of an engine (though with none of an engine’s fury). Barber’s tumbling orchestration (here and there a bit Bartokian) is tight and pressured, almost claustrophobic at times. The composer said it was NOT programmatic but I think we can be forgiving for adding our own narrative as the alarms start up again. It is brilliantly and vividly drawn. The airborne feeling to some passages are perhaps obvious even is the composer didn’t intend them. The music climbs in angular fashion to it’s last utterance which is victorious or at least valedictory. There’s a lot here to be celebrate - I’m pretty sure Barber was finding an excuse when he said the music wasn’t good enough. The movements ends on a quieting and maybe distant passage of the motors into a rich hued diminishing light sealed with a gong.
The slow movement picks up from that gong’s sonority. The gentle rocking motive has a domestic resonance to my ear. It is tranquil but very sad, the oboe over the top is reading a rite or a letter home or a graveside poem. It is lengthy, sincere and accepting. As it weaves a way through the orchestra one gets a sense of the quieter music of Barber’s contemporaries. It is a slow and increasingly hesitant progress interrupted and faltering. Whatever we might imagine here - the intensity grows and grows with the decaying coherence. A climax of sorts does nothing to yield a more upbeat mood. The music is a fine example of Barber at his most emotionally affecting but at his musically most un demonstrative. No swooping strings and no beefed up harmonic conflicts - the simplicity of this section of the symphony perhaps is about speaking to all those brave men to whom this music is directed and their families and loved ones who knew what it was to wait and suffer.
The final movement begins with an ascent and it’s pretty obvious that the pace and energy is more. The music moves various colours with staccato passages of colour and variety. The music picks a way trough a variation like pattern. But the feeling is of continued ascent especially as the music quickens. I think here Barber could be charged with letting the ideas slip a bit. But there is energy and as the music gains momentum he really lets the the orchestra fly. There’s an effortless feel now - so maybe all that repetition was worth it. There’s a striving element which is persistent throughout the work. As the music winds down into sombre purity, circling round it’s own centre, there’s a hint of some of Vaughan Williams war music. The striking blazing last minute fills the air with vigour and the salvo of timpani draws a line under this surpassing movement of movement and ultimately victory. It was never going to end in any other way in war time.
It is interesting to hear a work that a composer didn’t want future generations to hear. One wonders what we would have found in the archives if those parts hadn’t been found in Schirmer’s warehouse. Sibelius ensured his Eighth couldn’t be retrieved, Bruckner and Mahler left copious notes for unfinished symphonies. Brahms destroyed everything he didn’t want us to hear. There is much of Schubert that is unfinished (though not paradoxically his Unfinished Symphony), or wanting for completion. One only needs I think how ill-judged and oft revised some music is even when it is completed. If all composer's withdrew works the world would be a poorer place I think.
I think the decision to look down on this piece of propaganda might be coloured by the general fate of war music in the 20th Century. Vaughan-Williams War Symphonies are magnificent and some would say they are peaks of his symphonic art (I might well agree with that). Whereas Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony it treated with some dismay. But his Eighth is just starting to come out of the shadows as a work of truly universal greatness. I think we might bear things in mind. The high minded might forget that the wartime audience might need less obscure techniques and surprising ingenuity - they are not a typical audience at the symphony hall. The second point is that the artist’s model of self might be effected by war - so the peace time music might be altered by changes in the artist and finally, there is - especially with commissions such as this - a further obligation ( one way or another) to be patriotic. War music is a special thing - a difficult and often miserable subject. From Haydn to the present day we have music at the time of war. Barber’s effort has it’s audience and Barber addressed them directly and without fuss and still maintain a foot in the modernist camp.
I don’t love this symphony - it’s not that kind of work, but it is a document of social history in more than one way and needs to be heard in that spirit of it’s time.
Here’s Neeme Jarvi and the Detroit Symphony: