Samuel Barber: Symphony no. 2, op. 19

performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Marin Alsop
Marin Alsop is a woman. I assumed the info in iTunes had a typo and it was “Martin” or something. Anyway, that’s cool! Maybe the first female music director I can recall hearing of. 
This American symphony by an American composer is very different than the “New World” American symphony by the Czech composer from last week. That’s sort of the reason I picked it. Let’s contrast a bit. 
How is this piece American? Well, it’s obviously by an American composer, one of the most famous composers of the 20th century, at that. I have done his first symphony here already, but that was back when I wasn’t doing anything really in-depth. I will probably end up revisiting those early listens some time in the future. 
Many people know Barber’s Adagio for strings when they hear it, and it may be the only thing that comes to mind when they hear his name. I’ve listened to some of his piano works (a piano sonata and his Excursions,) and while I’m not familiar with them, I enjoyed them. 
There isn’t really any relation between the Dvorak and the Barber here, but I thought it would be interesting to contrast how each of them is American. I discussed the Dvorak last week, so go back there for info on that. How is this piece American (to me)? Well, it was written toward
the end of World War II, and finally published in 1950, after many revisions, but withdrawn in 1964. It was premiered by the ubiquitous Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony. Later, Barber demanded that the publisher destroy the manuscript and all scores, and it wasn’t until 1984 that some original parts showed up and some more interest in Barber’s works led to a 1990 reprint of the original 1950 edition. 
That is to say… the piece was written in the nationalistic climate of WWII, and it sounds that way. It was a commission from the Air Force and the agreement was they would receive all royalties from it forever. He had four months to complete the piece, and even underwent some basic training at an airbase or something. While Barber himself denies that the piece is programmatic, it certainly sounds that way to me, dare I say impressionist in its representation of the feelings and sounds of flying? 
It has a certain energy to it that felt familiar, and in orchestration and melody, for some reason almost felt like a wind band piece. Maybe that’s because in high school, I played a number of pieces that were based on the idea of flying (Giroux’s To Walk with Wings and Holsinger’s To Tame the Perilous Skies), this symphony reminding me a lot of the latter. 
I didn’t pick up on any bitonality here; my ear is most definitely not that well-tuned for anything like that, but there are obviously passages that are considerably more modern, like the opening and the middle/latter half of the slow second movement. 
The first movement is my favorite. Its energy and tension and drive are exciting and do give that rushing feeling one may experience when flying (I suppose). One thing I noticed about this symphony is its neoclassicism in a few ways. Some parts of it have a feel that smack of Prokofiev or Stravinsky (to me?) but it is clearly not a Romantic-era piece. This is most noticeable to me in the first movement when I really like what Barber does with certain motifs or passages, but am expecting them to go somewhere or develop or get bigger or blossom somehow, and they don’t. They just stay where they are. This treatment of themes is far different from the symphonies of Tchaikovsky or Sibelius that I have come to love so much. It is also a smaller-scale work, only half as long as some of my favorite symphonies from the aforementioned composers. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but it was just apparent that Barber, himself a fantastic lyricist, put these ideas and themes to use in a far different way. Passages in the first movement are exciting and stirring and border on patriotic, almost. 
The second movement is gorgeous. I really enjoy the slow movement. I believe there is an oboe solo in the first movement, and an English horn solo in the second, and they’re both beautiful. The second half of this movement, as I recall (not listening now) is more dissonant, and in this recording (and I suppose in all subsequent recordings) the tone generator that was requested to be used in the piece by the Air Force is replaced with an Eb clarinet.
The third movement has a fancy technical nature with a fugue and variations and stuff. It’s actually my least favorite movement of the three; not to say I don’t like it, but I feel the piece gets weaker with each movement. The first is my favorite. There’s a slow passage toward the end of the piece that, if you aren’t paying attention, makes you think you haven’t gotten to the third movement yet. It finishes in a big, dramatic way and does feel satisfying. 
My issues about this piece are that I feel the drama and majority of the storytelling is done by means of programmatic or even impressionist means. I am not against either, but this piece DOES feel far less like a symphony and much more like a symphonic poem or something in its narrative and structure. I like it, and it was nice to listen to, but it is far from being a favorite of mine. I would like to see it live, as there are some thoroughly enjoyable parts to it, but I do understand why this symphony has not made it into the more standard classical repertoire. It would get maybe 3.5 stars out of five for me. Interesting work, but didn’t blow me away. 
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