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I scrapped a music diary for Top Comments last night because I needed to write more about my encounters with the Kos community this month and how that has helped in my bereavement process. This is for the same reasons, not to mention the fact that the people who post videos of their recordings of classical music have, at least as far as I've searched, really fallen down with regard to Vaughan Williams's Second Symphony. It's also because of commonmass.

So, with very little discussion beside providing context, I give you Samuel Barber. No, not THAT. An early setting, with an unusual combination of participants, of an eerily prescient poem, and a somewhat later setting of prose. Below the great orange bow-rest, please.

Barber wrote lots of settings of words to music, and tonight we'll examine two of them. They are both, appropriately, about memory.

Dover Beach, op. 3 (1931): For voice (Baritone or Contralto) and string quartet.  A setting of a melancholy poem written by the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold in 1867. The text is present with subtitles in the video, but I'll give it to you anyway.

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Yes, the world is confusing, but what we have is love. Ralph Vaughan Williams heard this in 1931 when he was teaching at Bryn Mawr College, outside Philadelphia. As Barber reflected half a century later,
He congratulated me and said, I tried several times to set Dover Beach, but you really got it.
So, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the greatest singer of lieder of the last half of the twentieth century,  with the Julliard String Quartet.

Melancholic, with agitated strings that bear some resemblance to the beginning of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, and why not, because that was written for a sextet. The agitation doesn't let up even when the poem turns to the subject of love.

Knoxville: Summer of 1915, 0p 24 (1947)

Twenty-six years later, Barber was so affected by a passage by James Agee, which Agee wrote in 1938 about the year before Agee's father died that he decided to set it to music when the soprano Eleanor Steber and the conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned a work for soprano and orchestra, to be performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It's elegiac: Agee wrote it while he was interested in early childhood memories; Barber set it to music while his father was dying.

The work exists in editions for both full orchestra and chamber orchestra. The instruments in the chamber orchestra arrangement: flute (piccolo), oboe (English horn), clarinet, bassoon, 2 French horns, trumpet, triangle, harp, strings. The full orchestra, which you'll hear in performance, also incldes timpani and bass clarinet.

The video is in two parts, because the singer isn't Eleanor Steber, nor is it Leontyne Price, who is also closely associated with the piece. I give you the great under-celebrated American soprano of midcentury, Eileen Farrell, who I had the joy of seeing as Leonora in La Forza del Destino in Boston as part of the Metropolitan Opera Tour in the early 1960s, in a radio performance with the CBS Orchestra conducted by Bernard Herrmann and recorded in 1949.

We begin adagio ma non troppo. No text because Ms. Farrell's diction is excellent. She starts to describe the town, accompanied on and off by the winds or the horns or the violins, in a very measured pace.

Allegro agitato to mark the passage of one of those loud electric streetcars, then calmando as it has passed and back to adagio ma non troppo as we are back to the porches, listening to the locusts. We accelerate slightly to allegretto as the family spreads quilts on the lawn to watch the night sky, and then as the five-year old Agee is taken inside and put to bed, adagio, but troppo. If you missed the words in that last section, here they are:

After a little while, I am taken in and put to bed.
Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her:
and those receive me who quietly treat me, as one familiar and beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever, but will not ever tell me who I am.
More twentieth-century just listening, and sections of ravishing beauty. I'll be back on 2/11 with even more ravishing beauty from Ralph Vaughan Williams, the diary I had intended to publish tonight. Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, The Lark Ascending and the London Symphony. That will be then. Tonight, it's different.

Our prayers and thoughts are focused on you, Bill. I'm wrapping my self in MY quilt and hoping you can feel its warmth.

Originally posted to Dave in Northridge on Thu Jan 24, 2013 at 04:38 PM PST.

Also republished by DKOMA and An Ear for Music.

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