doverSamuel Barber’s primary theme is his exploration of adolescence, lost childhood and youth, according to Wilfrid Mellers (in Chapter 9 of Music in a New Found Land, 1964). Mellers believes Barber is less successful when he tries (as in the opera Vanessa) to universalize this theme in an adult way, as some kind of “idealized abstraction of an American Past”, or when he attempts big romantic gestures (as in the First Symphony). The “true Barber” emerges when his focus is on the personal, on “a specific child ‘realized’ in sound”. That’s first exemplified in his early setting of Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach for voice and string quartet. The poem, says Mellers, expresses “that cry of a young heart, lonely in a hostile world in which Faith is extinct”.

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.

The poem begins with an evocation of the calm sea, with the lovers looking out from their window and seeing the lights gleaming across the Channel from the French coast. But gradually, in “the grating roar/Of pebbles which the waves draw back”, they begin to hear something else: “the eternal note of sadness”. The Sea of Faith was once all-surrounding as well, “But now I only hear/Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”. Mellers points to “the lyrical contours of the voice part [and] the flowing sea-figuration of the strings” in Barber’s setting, as well as “the unabashed sobbing of dominant ninths at the climax” (on the words “neither joy, nor love, nor light”).

Written when Barber was just 20, Dover Beach points directly to later works where he returns to much the same theme in his uniquely personal way. In the Prayers of Kierkegaard (1954), for instance, his subject is the Man-God relationship. But it’s treated as synonymous with the child-parent relationship, leaving it entirely free of the “inflated bombast” of earlier symphonic works. Mellers boils it down to this: “Barber’s music becomes more moving – even, paradoxically, more ‘mature’ – when it is content to admit to its adolescent, childish quality”. The most characteristic example of all is a mature work, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for soprano and orchestra, which we will return to in the next post.

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