Hermit Songs, Op. 29

March 29, 2015 – Matthew Polenzani, tenor; Ken Noda, piano

Samuel Barber excelled in both singing and composition as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Upon graduation he worked briefly as a baritone for NBC on the Music Guild Series and was even hired for his own series of weekly song broadcasts in 1935. As a composer he was naturally drawn to vocal expression—two-thirds of his compositions consist of songs—but even his instrumental works are infused with a lyrical impulse.

In November 1952, Barber was already a well-established composer and had just completed his lighthearted ballet Souvenirs, when another project seized his fancy, drawing on his love of Irish literature and poetry. He wrote to his uncle, composer Sidney Homer, who served as his mentor for much of his career:

I have come across some poems of the 10th century, translated into Modern English by various people, and am making a song cycle of them, to be called, perhaps “Hermit Songs.” These were extraordinary men, monks or hermits or what not, and they wrote these little poems on the corners of MSS they were illuminating or just copying. I find them very direct, unspoiled, and often curiously contemporaneous in feeling.

Barber himself was something of a hermit, often holing up to compose, so the idea of these ancient scholars scribbling in unguarded moments greatly appealed to him. He elaborated further in his printed preface:

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. Some are very literal translation, and others, where existing translation seemed inadequate, were especially made by W. H. Auden [“The Monk and his Cat” and “The Praises of God”] and Chester Kallman [“St. Ita’s Vision”].

Barber composed four of the Hermit Songs immediately and by mid-February had completed the other six. A year after he had begun, he received a commission for the cycle from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation—Mrs. Coolidge had been a great supporter of his work for thirty years. Barber’s search for the ideal singer to present the songs culminated with Leontyne Price, who had recently become known for her portrayal of Bess in Porgy and Bess but had yet to make her recital debut. Price, with Barber at the piano, gave the first performance at the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., on Mrs. Coolidge’s eighty-ninth birthday, October 30, 1953. She presented them again with the composer in April in Rome at the Twentieth-Century Music Conference and in November at her New York recital debut—thus began a long and rewarding friendship.

The ten songs vary considerably in length and mood according to their subjects, from the tender lullaby of “St. Ita’s Vision” to the bombast of “Sea-Snatch.” But they make a cohesive group based in part on ancient-sounding fourths and fifths and other shared motivic material (a descending whole tone followed by a descending fourth appears in eight of the songs). Whether fast or slow, jaunty or reflective, Barber’s style of declamation fits the text precisely because he allows unhampered metric flow by omitting time signatures altogether. Attested to by the frequency of their performance and by the remarkable number of studies devoted to both their textual and musical analysis, The Hermit Songs rank among the great songs cycles of the twentieth century.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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