Hyperion Records

Hermit Songs, Op 29

'Barber: Songs' (CDA67528)
Barber: Songs
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67528 
No 01: At St Patrick's Purgatory  Pity me on my pilgrimage to Loch Derg!
No 02: Church Bell at Night  Sweet little bell, struck on a windy night
No 03: St Ita's Vision  I will take nothing from my Lord, said she
No 04: The Heavenly Banquet  I would like to have the men of Heaven in my own house
No 05: The Crucifixion  At the cry of the first bird
No 06: Sea Snatch  It has broken us, it has crushed us
author of text
translator of text
Kenneth Jackson: A Celtic Miscellany

No 07: Promiscuity  I do not know with whom Edan will sleep
author of text
translator of text
Kenneth Jackson: A Celtic Miscellany

No 08: The Monk and his Cat  Pangur, white Pangur
No 09: The Praises of God  How foolish the man who does not raise
No 10: The Desire for Hermitage  Ah! To be all alone in a little cell

Hermit Songs, Op 29
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.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2007

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