Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Samuel Barber's Cave of the Heart

When I did my masters degree at the New England Conservatory, I took a class called "Writing About Music" taught by one of my favorite teachers of all time, Helen Greenwald.  I discovered with her help that I really enjoyed writing and perhaps to some degree that's what spurred this blog.  The point of the class was to learn how to write about music in a scholarly style and to learn how to use a library and the Internet for research.  For my "big" paper, I chose the life and works of Samuel Barber, in particular Vanessa, a much neglected opera written towards the end of his life.

With the nasty weather today, I spent the day inside practicing and listening to music.  I've been working on Katherine Hoover's Sonata for Oboe and Piano which uses motives from Barber's Cave of the HeartI think I read somewhere that Hoover played in Martha Graham's orchestra, so she would have been infinitely familiar with Barber's work.  It got me curious about the ballet that was written for Graham in the 50's, so I downloaded it from iTunes for a listen.  It turns out that I have played the piece in the suite form, Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance.  It has been a favorite of mine, so I was delighted to hear all of the music from the ballet.

I love Barber's music for its unapologetic lyricism and later for his daring integration of extended harmony and controversial subject matters as the inspiration for new works. The common criticism for his work is, in fact, that it seems a bit old fashioned, though that usually comes from people unfamiliar with the entire catalog of his works.  Cave of the Heart, for example, is anything but lyrical.  While it does make use of sweeping melodic gestures, they are few and far between.  The work takes on a decidedly angular feel featuring percussion and woodwind instruments playing driving dance figures in awkward menacing spirals.  Virgil Thomson and Charles Munch both embraced the premiere of the work calling it brave and marking the sign of a powerful emerging voice in the American compositional world, while opponents disliked it for being disjointed.  It was even compared to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring by a Philadelphia Critic - in the musical climate an insult, but by today's standards, a huge compliment.

Cave of the Heart deserves a listen and more common performance, in my opinion.  In terms of music, ballet is often disappointing, so it's nice to hear music that lives up to the genius of the choreographer.  I would go so far as to say that the music stands up just fine on its own and is suitable for concert performance.  Check out the Atlanta Symphony's recording under Yoel Levi for the suite, or the Atlantic Sinfonietta under Andrew Schenck for the complete ballet.  Both are well done.  I'm sure you will enjoy it after only one hearing.  It's full of energy and venom and you can easily picture Graham gyrating painfully on stage the whole while.  Happy listening!

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