Jon Lee


Barber Piano Sonata in e minor, op. 26

Program notes

Except for possibly the Adagio for Strings, no other of Samuel Barber’s works has had as stunning an impact on the American musical world as his Piano Sonata. Commisioned in the autumn of 1947 by Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers to honor the twenty-fifth anniversary of the League of Composers, the sonata took Barber two years to complete. Although the first movement was finished quickly in December 1947, progress was interrupted by both a schedule of performances of Barber’s other works and a lack of inspiration. Almost a year had passed before Barber completed the second movement.

The four-movement sonata was completed in June 1949. In a radio interview with Robert Sherman, Barber recalled how he finally finished the sonata: “And then came a period when I couldn’t think of what to do with the fourth movement, and Mrs. Horowitz called me up and said ‘the trouble with you is you’re stitico—it means constipated—that’s what you are, a constipated composer.’ That made me so made that I ran out to my studio and wrote that [fourth movement] in the next day. And that has kept plenty of pianists busy since.”

Although Barber had denied rumors that the sonata was written particularly for Vladimir Horowitz who was to premiere the piece, the great pianist had suggested changes in the sonata that eventually found their way into the manuscript. For example, Barber altered the penultimate measure of the second movement, turning it from a spare arpeggio of eighth notes to a sweeping three octaves of thirty-second notes. Alterations of tempi and metronome markings, penciled duration markings of each movement, and pedal indications also seem to correspond with Horowitz’s style of performance.

Premiered by Horowitz on January 23, 1950, the sonata received wide acclaim. Horowitz himself declared the work “the first truly great native work in the form.” Olin Downes of the New York Times said, “We consider it the first sonata really to come of age by an American composer of this period. It has intense feeling as well as constructive power and intellectual maturity. It is stated naturally and convincingly in the language of modern music.” When composer Francis Poulenc heard the piece, he said:

The sonata pleases me without reserve. It is a remarkable work from both the musical and instrumental point of view. In turn, tragical, joyous and songful, it ends up with a fantastically difficult to play fugue. Bursting with energy, this finale knocks you out [vous met knock-out] in (something less than) five minutes!

Although not revolutionary in its structure, the sonata’s strength lies in its alliance between long sweeping melodic ideas and the modern eclectic musical style of the twentieth century. The first movement is made from extraordinary economy of thematic material, prominently featuring the half step. Twelve-tone rows appear in the first three movements, and in the first movement, are found in both the melodic lines and accompaniment patterns. The scherzo-like second movement alleviates some of the heaviness of the sonata. The 4/4 measures interspersed among the 3/4 measures in the second theme gives na irregularity to the rhythm that facetiously feels like a spoiled waltz. The slow third movement contains an ostinato bass comprised of six dyads, which make a vertical statement of the twelve-tone row established in the first movement. They are then immediately arpeggiated and repeated in a half-step transposition. Using the traditional fugal structure, the angry fourth movement progresses through several development and episodic sections to an astonishing coda. Barber uses all the classic tools of fugue writing—stretto, retrograde, inversion, and augmentation—yet this movement hardly sounds like anything Baroque. Syncopated rhythms and blue-note harmonies associated with American jazz are integrated into the fabric of the music. The movement brings closure to the sonata by incorporating many of the themes and motifs found in the earlier movements.

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