The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (in one movement)

About the Work

Samuel Barber Composer: Samuel Barber
© Richard Freed

This one-movement symphony, composed in Rome during the winter of 1935-36, was given its premiere there on December 13, 1936, under Bernardino Molinari. Barber revised the score early in 1942, and the new version was introduced by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic on April 16 of that year. Hans Kindler conducted the National Symphony Orchestra?s first performance of this work, on November 7, 1945; Rafael Fr?hbeck de Burgos conducted the most recent ones in November of 1989.

The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, harp, and strings. Duration, 22 minutes.

Barber?s First Symphony, completed about the time he turned 26, was composed during his sojourn in Rome as winner of the American Prix de Rome. By the time it was introduced there, at the end of 1936, he was already well known for his earlier works, and less than six weeks after the Italian premiere Artur Rodzinski conducted the American one in Cleveland. On July 25, 1937, again under Rodzinski, the Barber Symphony became the first American work to be performed at the Salzburg Festival. (Among those present, at Rodzinski?s urging, was Arturo Toscanini, who the following year introduced the first of Barber?s Essays for Orchestra and the Adagio for Strings with his newly formed NBC Symphony Orchestra.) Five years later Barber revised the score, rewriting the entire scherzo section; Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic not only introduced the revised version (with the Second Essay on the same program), but made the first recording of the work; it was that illustrious conductor?s only recording of American music.

One-movement symphonies were by no means common when Barber composed this one. He had the precedent of the Sibelius Seventh, but Roy Harris did not compose his famous Third Symphony until 1938. In common with those two works and most other one-movement symphonies, as the foregoing reference to a scherzo section may suggest, this one by Barber breaks down into sections more or less corresponding to those of a conventional four-movement work. Barber confirmed this in a program note of his own, as clear and concise as the symphony itself:

The form is a synthetic treatment of the four-movement classical symphony. It is based on three themes of the initial Allegro non troppo, which retain throughout the work their fundamental character. The Allegro opens with the usual exposition of a main theme, a more lyrical second theme, and a closing theme. After a brief development of the three themes, instead of the customary recapitulation, the first theme, in diminution, forms the basis of the scherzo section (Vivace). The second theme (oboe over muted strings) then appears in augmentation, in an extended Andante tranquillo. An intense crescendo introduces the finale, which is a short passacaglia based on the first theme (introduced by the violoncelli and contrabassi), over which, together with figures from other themes, the closing theme is woven, then serving as a recapitulation for the entire symphony.

The Symphony is an overtly dramatic work, but Barber neither affixed a descriptive subtitle nor gave any other indication of a programmatic intent. The drama here is of a generalized nature, fully representative of the lyricism, intensity and overall expressiveness that characterize all of his most successful instrumental scores.

Short after the 1942 premiere of the final version of the First Symphony, Barber composed a Second, in three movements. Although it was one of the works he himself recorded in London as conductor in 1951, he withdrew the score a short time later, and in 1964 he salvage the slow movement alone as an independent piece called Night Flight (after the book by Antoine de St.-Exup?ry). A few years after Barber?s death the Second Symphony was revived and recorded in its complete form.