Skip to Content

Singers and Lesser-Known Premieres at Dumbarton Oaks

Posted On October 06, 2020 | 16:08 pm | by danielb | Permalink
Daniel Boomhower discusses the 1950 premieres of two compositions by Samuel Barber, and the links between Dumbarton Oaks and the New York Metropolitan Opera

By Daniel Boomhower 

On Saturday, August 1, Renée Fleming began her livestreamed concert for the Metropolitan Opera—broadcast from our Music Room—with the concert premiere of an unaccompanied song by the acclaimed American composer John Corigliano. The Corigliano composition sets to music a prose poem by Catherine O’Meara, “And the People Stayed Home,” whose optimism for healing in the midst of the pandemic garnered widespread interest on the internet. This was, of course, not the first premiere given in the Music Room. The Met highlighted the association between Dumbarton Oaks and Igor Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, as well as Aaron Copland’s Nonet. The last concert in the Music Room prior to Fleming’s included the premiere of Viet Cuong’s Sandbox. But the premiere of a vocal work brings to mind the occasion when the music of another of the Met’s favored artists, composer Samuel Barber, filled the Music Room.

In the fall of 1949, plans by William Strickland began to emerge for an all-Barber concert to take place at Dumbarton Oaks the following spring. An organist and conductor, Strickland became established in the Washington music community in the 1940s as the head of the Army Music School at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, and as a guest conductor with the Cathedral Choral Society at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Strickland, who had attended the Cathedral Choir School at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, had served as an organist at several Episcopal churches, and at the time he met Barber—in New York in 1939 at a private musical gathering—he was assistant organist at the large St. Bartholomew Church on Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Strickland’s ideas for the 1950 concert included the possibility of a new choral composition and a new song cycle by Barber. Strickland had secured pianist Rudolf Firkušný, soprano Eileen Farrell, and a chamber orchestra for the concert. But while Barber agreed to write a set of three songs, on October 25, 1949, he wrote in a letter to Strickland that “I am wildly casting about for a text of three songs, am sure I will find something. But there’s not a chance of a chorus piece this year.”

Barber delivered on his promise to write three songs for the concert, which set to music poems in French by Rainer Maria Rilke—“Puisque tout passe” and “Départ” from Poèmes français and “Le clocher chante” from Les quatrains valaisans. While quite comfortable with French, Barber turned to the French composer Francis Poulenc and the baritone Pierre Bernac for assurances about his setting of the texts. Not only did Poulenc and Bernac not propose any changes, the two—who were frequent collaborators—sought to give the songs their premiere. Since the plans for the Dumbarton Oaks concert already included the premiere of these three songs, Poulenc and Bernac urged Barber to expand the collection. With addition of two further songs, “Un cygne” and “Tombeau dans un parc,” the cycle Mélodies passagères, op. 23 reached its final dimensions. Following Farrell’s premiere of the first three songs in the concert Strickland organized on April 1, 1950, with Barber himself at the piano, Poulenc and Bernac premiered the complete cycle at Dumbarton Oaks on January 21, 1952.

The 1950 concert also featured Rudolf Firkušný performing the Piano Sonata, op. 26, which Vladimir Horowitz had premiered little more than two months before (and was still in the midst of 21 concerts where he performed the new composition). Given Horowitz’s close association with the Sonata, Barber felt it appropriate to ask the legendary pianist permission for Firkušný to play it at Dumbarton Oaks. The concert also included Barber’s Capricorn Concerto, op. 21, from 1944, scored for flute, oboe, trumpet, and strings. The scoring and style of the concerto not only calls to mind J. S. Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto, but its inclusion would also undoubtedly remind the audience of the Bach-inspired concerto Stravinsky wrote in 1938 for the commission from Mildred and Robert Bliss.

An arrangement for chamber orchestra of Barber’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915 was the other premiere in the 1950 concert. Scored for soprano and symphony orchestra, the piece was premiered by Eleanor Steber with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky on April 9, 1948. But Barber initially envisioned it with a more spare instrumental accompaniment, so the proposition of a concert in the Music Room created an opportunity to explore this idea, resulting in a version whose intimacy makes even more poignant the rich imagery and nostalgia of James Agee’s text. Barber wrote in a letter, “I really think it sounded much better in this intimate version. . . . It seemed to move the audience greatly, although as I saw them sitting there in their furs and pearls, I wondered how many had ever ‘lain in the back-yards on quilts.’!!”

The links between Barber, Dumbarton Oaks, and the Metropolitan Opera are also more numerous than you might expect. Barber’s Knoxville has become standard in the repertoire of sopranos, with many of the most famous artists recording the iconic composition, including Renée Fleming. The Met’s association with Barber includes staging his first opera, Vanessa, in 1958 and commissioning his second opera, Antony and Cleopatra, which premiered in 1966 and featured Leontyne Price as Cleopatra—Price had also sung Cleopatra in a concert version of G. F. Handel’s Julius Caesar with the American Opera Society at Dumbarton Oaks in January of 1957. In an interview, Price said of Barber’s Knoxville, “As a southerner, it expresses everything I know about my roots and about my mama and papa [and] my hometown. . . . You can smell the South in it.” It will be interesting to see if such uncanny connections grow over time with the music of John Corigliano.


Daniel Boomhower is director of the library.