Samuel Barber would have been 107 on 9th March, an event I marked by mentioning Paul Moon’s soon-to-be-released documentary on the composer, Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty. I am lucky to have been able to view an advance copy of this remarkable film, which rather rewrites the rules of documentary film-making.
Moon essentially mounts his film projects alone, his most recent being a documentary exploring the remarkable circumstances of the composition of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps.
This new film—a two-hour documentary of Samuel Barber’s life and work—is, however, several orders of magnitude more ambitious. It is the kind of project that used only to be made by documentary departments of major television studios. For its more than two-hour running time, you wouldn’t be aware that it hadn’t been.
Moon has assembled an impressive range of experts in the field. These are headed by two of Barber’s biographers, Pierre Brevignon and Barbara Heyman (both of whom receive producer credits). They provide the authoritative narrative backbone to the film. Heyman, especially, does much of the heavy lifting, introducing many of the key works and peppering her contributions with some delightful biographical vignettes. In addition to this, a number of well-known musicians (Leonard Slatkin and Marin Alsop, to name but two) contribute interviews, performances and rehearsals of the works. A third layer is provided by the use of archive material, which appears both as footage and as voice-overs. In most cases individual contributions are excellent (there is occasional hyperbole, the very early Dover Beach, for example, being described as ‘One of the greatest pieces of vocal music of the twentieth century’, a tall order given the competition), but it is the structural coherence that Moon brings to the whole that makes it such a remarkable success.
The tone and theme of the film is set at the opening in archive contributions from William Schuman, who identifies Barber as a composer who, like Bach, was content to operate within a given style, and by Leonard Bernstein, who describes Barber’s music as having the quality of ‘absolute beauty.’ After this Moon takes a sensibly, though not slavishly, chronological approach. The first section begins with the aforementioned Dover Beach (op. 3, 1931) for baritone and string quartet, certainly a remarkable work for a 19 year-old, before leading us through the Cello Sonata (op. 6, 1932), First Symphony (op. 9, 1935-6), the Adagio (op. 11a, 1936), Violin Concerto (op. 14, 1939/40), Cello Concerto (op. 22, 1945), Piano Sonata (op. 26, 1948), Hermit Songs (op. 29, 1953) and Ballet Medea (op. 23 1946/7). Each section allows Moon’s experts to expand on the individual works and, extrapolating from this, the themes identified at the opening.
Knoxville (op. 24,1947), a setting for soprano and orchestra of a text by James Agee, comes in the middle of the film, its theme of childhood leading naturally to an examination of Barber’s earliest life. This forms a happy interlude before the deeper explorations in the second half of the documentary, beginning with one of Barber’s most challenging works, his Piano Sonata (op. 26, 1948), where he consciously tested the limits of his style. Of the several works that follow only Summer Music for wind quintet (op. 31, 1956), where Moon shows us a curious piece of rehearsal footage with no further comment, feels a little perfunctory. More revealing is the section following Toccata Festiva for organ and orchestra (op. 36, 1960), which explores Barber’s lifelong relationship with composer Gian Carlo Menotti and Barber’s own attitudes to homosexuality.
The last years are painful to watch. Composer John Corigliano (who is also a significant contributor elsewhere) explains how the critical reaction to the first performance of his third opera Anthony and Cleopatra (op. 40, 1966) led Barber partially to withdraw from composing. He was also forced to sell Capricorn, his much-loved countryside home, and live in New York. There was a trickle of final works, but ultimately we are left with the image of a composer who spent much of his time alone playing the works of Bach. When the end came it was in his lifelong companion’s arms—Menotti providing a poignant description of that moment.
The documentary argues passionately that Barber should be ranked highly amongst twentieth-century composers, a question that it cannot, of course, answer definitively. For many, especially in Europe, he is known mainly as the composer of that work—the ubiquitous Adagio. In its own way, however, writing the Adagio was in itself a rebellious act, one that is plausibly identified in this film as a precursor to minimalism and to the emergence of composers such as Arvo Pärt and Henryk Gorecki. Despite this, Barber was no revolutionary—to quote Liszt via Heyman, he knew that there is a ‘degree of innovation beyond which one does not pass without danger.’ He was content to avoid that danger by staying within certain stylistic parameters. It is within these boundaries, however, that his music must be judged, not by a perceived failure to join in with mainstream modernism (a confrontation that is comically described in this film in a chance meeting between Barber and Boulez). In this sense the quality and importance of his work should not be in doubt. If you are at all unfamiliar with this essential twentieth century composer, this marvellous documentary is the ideal place to begin.
Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty streams online via watch.samuelbarberfilm.com and amazon.samuelbarberfilm.com. DVDs ship worldwide from dvd.samuelbarberfilm.com. Subtitles are included on all media in English, French, German, Spanish and Russian.