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Hyperion Records

CDA67528 - Barber: Songs
Sunset, Montclair (detail) (1892) by George Inness (1825-1894)
Private Collection, David Findlay Jnr Fine Art, NYC, USA / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: December 2005
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: November 2007
DISCID: 980E961B
Total duration: 59 minutes 59 seconds


'Performances of this calibre emphasise Barber's stature in the mainstream of 20th-century song composers … Finley and Drake are impeccable (as are the Aronowitz Quartet in Dover Beach) … this is another outstanding Hyperion release that does credit to Barber in what will soon be a run-up to his centenary' (Gramophone)

'Gerald Finley is golden in tone, persuasive in phrasing, and unfailingly responsive to the sound and sense of the words. Julius Drake once more proves a strong and imaginative partner, and a quartet from the Aronowitz Ensemble makes a promising recording debut … a very satisfying recital' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The indefatigable Gerald Finley, who makes even the most straight-laced song shine … Julius Drake is his ever percipient partner, while the strings of the Aronowitz Ensemble provide an atmospheric backing for the most famous of these songs, Dover Beach' (The Daily Telegraph)

'The performances are outstanding. Canadian baritone Finley is in top form, showing total command of his voice with stunning hushed singing and ringing top notes. Drake is his reliable accompanist … everything about this recording is terrific' (American Record Guide)

'Baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake follow their outstanding disc of songs by Charles Ives with a collection devoted to a very different American composer. Samuel Barber's particularly personal brand of romanticism seems so natural and unforced, it's unnecessary to attach the prefix 'neo-' to it. Barber's gifts for elegant, melodic writing and his own early experiences as a singer (he once contemplated a career as a baritone) made him a natural songwriter, and two of the works here—the 10 settings of medieval Irish texts that make up his Hermit Songs Op 29, and the magically rapt version of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach—are among his finest achievements in any genre. The Mélodies Passagères, composed in the early 1950s for Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc, are a homage to French song; three other settings of James Joyce and some of Barber's songs to American texts are also included. Finley is a wonderfully persuasive advocate for all these songs, and shows that the best of them rank among the greatest of the 20th century' (The Guardian)

'Finley captures the 'eternal note of sadness' that the poet Matthew Arnold hears on the wave-dragged shingle on Dover Beach … Finley and Drake make an excellent partnership throughout' (The Times)

'In my book, Samuel Barber is one of the finest of all songwriters of the 20th century … every human emotion … is astutely conveyed. Gerald Finley knows this well, and here sings some of Barber's finest … ably assisted by the pianist Julius Drake, Finley communicates with finesse every poetic nuance, his golden baritone allied to rare poetic intelligence' (The Sunday Times)

'Having served the songs of Charles Ives with enormous distinction, the partnership of baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake shift artistic gear to explore works by one of America's greatest tunesmiths. Samuel Barber's lyrical writing and subtle feeling for expressive shading were matched in his songs by a Britten-like aptness for word-setting, which ideally suits Finley's compelling blend of emotional conviction and vocal sensibility. On the strength of his interpretation of the Hermit Songs alone, regardless of his majestic readings of Barber's Rilke settings and Dover Beach, Finley enables this album to command its price as one of the year's finest vocal releases. Unmissable' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Finley’s best work … this disc has an admirable program … Finley makes a firm and pleasing sound and he can command the nuances when necessary … Julius Drake’s accompaniments strike me as right and are a pleasure to hear' (Fanfare, USA)

'A CD of Barber's songs may, on the surface, seem like too much of a good thing, until you listen to Finley's magisterial survey … using his handsome baritone to explore the Britten-esque lyricism of the Hermit songs and the Francophone poetry of his Mélodies passagères' (Financial Times)

'Hearing the Hermit Songs in a man's voice, this man's voice, is little short of a revelation … there's a world of feeling in these 10 songs, and Finley, accompanied throughout by pianist Julius Drake in a way that would make Barber proud, burrows deeply into every niche … I held my breath before 'Sure on this shining night', my favorite Barber song of all, an ecstatic setting of a rapturous James Agee poem that's harder to bring off than its simple, swelling lines would suggest. Finley hit it out of the park' (Bay Area Reporter, USA)

'[Finley's] warm timbre, technical facility, fluid, natural phrasing, and conscientious expression brings an easy, unforced clarity to the texts, ideally characterizing each song without distracting mannerisms or undue dramatic inflections … it would be hard to imagine performances more purely beautiful, sensitive, and true to the music and poetry than Finley's' (

Rain has fallen  [2'24]
Sleep now  [2'33]
I hear an army  [2'27]

The wonderful Gerald Finley, described recently as ‘the best living baritone currently at the peak of his powers’ (The Globe and Mail), brings his ‘glorious sound and great dramatic instinct’ to this fascinating selection of songs, sensitively accompanied by Julius Drake.

Barber’s songs are among his greatest musical achievements, demonstrating above all his sustained lyric impulse and graceful melodic writing. Another aspect was his well-developed literary taste. He unfailingly selected texts of high quality, including English ‘Georgian’ poets, Irish bards, the French Symbolists and poets writing in English who were affected by them, such as James Joyce, as well as some of his own American contemporaries. Throughout his song output, he found ways of embodying the poets’ thought in musical correlatives that were never merely decorative, and developed an instinctive knack for embodying words in a memorable vocal shape. Presented here are a range of early and later songs including Barber’s first success for voice, Dover Beach, which the composer sang on its first recording in 1935.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Samuel Barber’s name has come to be associated principally with orchestral music, of which he did not write very much, mainly due to the universal appeal and ubiquity of his 1936 Adagio for Strings. Yet the larger part of his output is vocal music (he even, late in life, turned the Adagio into an Agnus Dei for a cappella choir). Barber served as a church organist while still in his teens, and developed a fine baritone voice: indeed he almost became a professional singer, and studied singing at the Curtis Institute, which he entered at the age of fourteen, with Emilio de Gogorza. (He also studied piano with Isabelle Vengerova, composition with Rosario Scalero and conducting with Fritz Reiner.) Song was important to him from his earliest years: an aunt was the contralto Louise Homer, whose husband Sidney Homer was a prolific song composer. Barber’s first success was with a setting for voice and string quartet of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, which he composed at the age of twenty and himself sang on its first recording in 1935.

Among American composers of his generation he was chiefly remarkable for his sustained lyric impulse and graceful melodic writing—two elements which made him a natural song-writer. Another aspect, as the choice of Arnold’s great and substantial poem may indicate, was Barber’s literary sense. He read poetry constantly and is said to have had a book of poetry by his bedside throughout his life. He unfailingly selected texts of high quality, including English ‘Georgian’ poets, Irish bards, the French Symbolists and poets writing in English who were affected by them, such as James Joyce, as well as some of his American contemporaries. Throughout his song output, he found ways of capturing the poets’ thought in musical correlatives that were never merely decorative, and developed an instinctive knack for embodying words in a memorable vocal shape.

Barber had a lifelong enthusiasm for Celtic, especially Irish literature: like the British composers Bax and Moeran he identified strongly with Ireland and its people—their humour, their melancholy, their love of words—and considered himself a sort of Irishman ‘in spirit’. He retained a great affection for the writings of James Stephens and James Joyce. His earliest published songs (the Three Songs Op 2, published in 1936) combine two settings of Stephens with a poem from A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The unforced naturalness of their utterance and the sheer charm of their appeal is enhanced by the clear textures and simple, grateful piano parts. The carefree ditty of Stephens’s The Daisies is followed by a plangent B minor setting of Housman’s With rue my heart is laden. More ambitious—indeed frankly dramatic—is the second Stephens setting, Bessie Bobtail, with its melancholy dragging rhythm (the piano’s figures in contrary motion have a drum-like effect), breaking out at last in tragic appeal. The bleak mood is confirmed by the piano’s chorale-like postlude in D minor, marked ‘with eloquence’.

Barber’s settings of poems from James Joyce’s Chamber Music, published in 1939 as his Three Songs Op 10, are already more sophisticated and developed utterances. In Rain has fallen the plashing right-hand piano figures, illustrative of the falling rain, are poised above ambiguous, impressionistic harmonies that suggest the act of memory in which the poet is engaged, and they are developed to carry the song’s passionate climax in its stormy piano outburst. Sleep now is a very unquiet lullaby, with the ‘voice of the winter’ evoked in angular, declamatory piano figures in the central section. The song’s F sharp minor tonality only resolves to a tranquil F major in the final bars. There follows one of Barber’s most impressive achievements in the voice-and-piano medium. I hear an army is an onomatopoeic tour de force, the superbly imaginative piano part evoking the thunder of horses, the calls of trumpets, and the surge of the sea. It rises to a sustained, anguished outcry at ‘My love, my love, why have you left me alone?’.

The settings of American poets that Barber published as his opus 13 confirm the broadening of his expressive range. Sure on this shining night, to a poem by James Agee, is one of his most perfect and ecstatic lyrics, the canonic melody between voice and piano and the warm, steadily pulsing harmonies creating a sense of rapt contemplation. Nocturne sets a poem by Frederick Prokosch. Its apparently peaceful opening is undercut by its fretful modulations, and as melancholy invades the music, the central section becomes an agonized appeal for rest and healing, and the return of the opening figuration at the end is now seen as a symbol of welcome oblivion in ‘the blind eternal night’.

The Mélodies passagères Op 27, composed in 1950– 51 and published in 1952, were written for and dedicated to the voice and piano duo of Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc, and are a delicate compliment both to Poulenc the composer and to the traditions of French song. Barber chose poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, normally thought of as a German poet, but who wrote occasionally in French after he settled in the Valais Canton in Switzerland. Four of the five poems are drawn from Rilke’s Poèmes français, written in homage and imitation of Paul Valéry, and one from Les quatrains valaisans. The settings prove Barber to have been as subtle a setter of French prosody as of English. The lyrically thoughtful Puisque tout passe acts as an introduction to the evocative lake landscape of Un cygne, where the calmly echoing left-hand figuration and the softly plashing fourths in the right conjure up the deep waters on which the swan glides in the voice’s sustained melodic line. In Tombeau dans un parc, the piano’s grave fourths and fifths resound like distant bells, only momentarily changing to harped arpeggios at the vision of the white dove. A more forthright and extrovert bell-piece is Le clocher chante, ringing a joyous carillon in praise of the Valais. For the final song, Départ, the piano’s melancholic left-hand ostinato forms quietly bitter dissonance with the right hand’s repeated Gs as preamble to the aching climax of ‘ce sera un point rose’.

Probably Barber’s best-known set of songs is the Hermit Songs Op 29, a group of ten settings of translations of medieval Gaelic or Latin poems attributed to Irish saints and holy persons. The composer himself wrote of the songs: ‘They are settings of anonymous Irish texts of the eighth to thirteenth centuries written by monks and scholars, often on the margins of manuscripts they were copying or illuminating—perhaps not always meant to be seen by their Father Superiors. They are small poems, thoughts or observations, some very short, and speak in straightforward, droll, and often surprisingly modern terms of the simple life these men led, close to nature, to animals and to God.’

For the most part brief and deftly limned, these delightful songs were composed in 1952–3 and dedicated to the great American patroness of contemporary music, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, whose Foundation had given Barber a grant to complete the work. The premiere was given on 30 October 1953 in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, Washington by a young and then-unknown soprano called Leontyne Price, with the composer at the piano.

Barber’s chosen texts—some of the translations were specially made for him—are very varied, ranging from the reverent The Crucifixion with its cold bird-cries, to the playful The Monk and His Cat. His settings are equally well contrasted, from epigram (Promiscuity) to extended meditation (The Desire for Hermitage); they seem to offer a conspectus of Barber’s wide range of mood and characterization, as well as his sense of humour. The songs are all written without time-signatures, a device which aids their flexibility of phrasing and word-setting. Mostly they do in fact fall into recognizable metres, but the fluidly changing bar-lengths of the scherzo-like The Heavenly Banquet and the insistent toccata of Sea Snatch confirm that the stresses in these songs derive from the words, not from any independent musical design. There are also notable passages of free, unbarred recitative, as in the introduction to St Ita’s Vision (the main part of the song being a tender berceuse) or the piano cadenza that forms the intense climax of The Desire for Hermitage. The florid and syncopated The Praises of God is a song where Barber seems to draw near to the song-writing manners of his close contemporary and friend Benjamin Britten. Perhaps the best-loved of all these songs is The Monk and his Cat, on a poem famous in cat literature, beginning ‘Pangur, white Pangur, / How happy we are’. Here the lazy flowing rhythm, the piano’s mewing crushed seconds, and the bluesy harmony conjure up a warm impression of perfect human-feline contentment.

Our view of Barber as song-writer has been expanded by the posthumous publication of some ten additional early songs, of which we hear three on this disc. The very early There’s nae lark dates from Barber’s seventeenth year. The text is one of A C Swinburne’s imitations of Scots border lyrics, and Barber crafts a lyrical melodic line in imitation of Scots folksong with its ardent upward leaps of a ninth or an octave. (His model could well have been the tune to which Robert Burns’s My Love is like a Red Red Rose is traditionally sung.) The Beggar’s Song to a poem by W H Davies (the author of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp was used to living rough) is a satire against hypocritical Christians who rest from their labours on the Sabbath: beggars are holier still because they rest every day. The pompous fanfare-figures of the opening soon turn to bright dance rhythms, with a delicious modulation as the beggar-protagonist appeals to the tender hearts of the ladies. In the dark pinewood (1937) is another setting of a poem from James Joyce’s Chamber Music. The languorous rise and fall of the voice in unison with the rich harmonies of the piano’s right hand, shifting with ease between the darker flat side and brighter sharp side of C major, the voice broadening in augmentation towards the end, make this an especially rapt example of atmospheric love-song.

While he sometimes dismissed his youthful works, Barber retained a special affection for Dover Beach Op 3; nearly fifty years after he first composed it, he remarked on the maturity of his setting of Matthew Arnold’s text and the timelessness of the poem, saying that the emotions evoked by both words and music seemed contemporary. Clearly the exalted pessimism of Arnold’s vision struck a resonant chord with Barber. The poem depicts human misery as grounded in the loss of religious faith, isolating each human being from his or her fellows. The sea’s ebb-tide, as seen from the beach, is the controlling metaphor: it stands for the retreating ‘sea of faith’ in whose place mere Nature can offer no comfort, only a confirmation of the human predicament. Barber’s setting begins as an atmospheric evocation of the calm sea seen at night in an austere D minor. But the pitiless processes of the tides causes the emotion to darken, and the music responds with denser, more painful harmonies. The central move to a hymn-like D major brings no relaxation; the timbres of the string quartet create a strongly plangent emotional effect, most of all at the tragic return to D minor and the climactic appeal ‘Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!’. The reprise of the opening music at the end is a daring stroke—Arnold’s ‘ignorant armies [that] clash by night’ would seem to demand more violent expression, but Barber stresses the indifference of nature in the face of human doubt.

Calum MacDonald © 2007

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