The Kennedy Center

Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23a

About the Work

Samuel Barber Composer: Samuel Barber
© Richard Freed

This concert piece, which Barber fashioned from his score for the 1947 ballet Cave of the Heart, was given its premiere by the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos on February 2, 1956. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed it on January 12, 1957, under Howard Mitchell, and presented it last on August 2, 2001, at Wolf Trap, Thomas Wilkins conducting.

The score calls for 3 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, tom tom, triangle, cymbals, tam-tam, xylophone, whip, piano, and strings. Duration, 13 minutes.

Few stronger contrasts are to be found among works in a single category by any composer than those between Barber's two ballets. His Souvenirs, which grew out of a set of piano duets conceived in 1952, is a gently satirical view of certain facets of life ca. 1914, based on ballroom styles in vogue at that time, while his earlier dance work, written for Martha Graham under a commission from the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University, took as its subject a horrifying figure from Greek mythology: Medea, whose possessiveness and jealousy drove her to murder her own children to spite Jason, the husband who abandoned her for a more advantageous marriage.

The original version of Barber's Medea ballet, was first performed at the MacMillan Theater on the Columbia campus on May 10, 1946, was titled The Serpent Heart. With revisions in both music and choreography, it was reintroduced in February 1947 as Cave of the Heart, and in December of that year a seven-movement suite from the ballet score, called simply Medea (Op. 23), was given its premiere by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Five years later Barber selected some of the strongest portions of the score and reworked them into a compact single-movement concert piece which he called Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. This has come to be not only the most widely circulated version of music from the ballet, but one of Barber's most successful concert works in any form; a few years before his death he shortened its title to Medea's Dance of Vengeance.

In the score of the earlier concert suite, Barber noted that neither he nor Martha Graham had conceived their ballet as a literal representation of the Medea/Jason legend. "These mythical figures," he wrote,

served rather to project psychological states of jealousy and vengeance which are timeless. The choreography and music were conceived, as it were, on two time levels, the ancient-mythical and the contemporary. Medea and Jason first appear as godlike, superhuman figures of the Greek tragedy. As the tension and conflict between them increase, they step out of their legendary roles from time to time and become the modern man and woman, caught in the nets of jealousy and destructive love; and at the end reassume their mythic quality. In both the dancing and the music, archaic and contemporary idioms are used. Medea, in her final scene after the dénouement, becomes once more the descendant of the sun.

Medea's Dance of Vengeance, scored for a larger orchestra than the original ballet or the concert suite, may be regarded as a tightknit tone poem that represents the musical and dramatic sequence of the stage work as described in Barber's words, a sort of distillation of the operative emotions. Motifs and specific sonorities identified with archaism or with contemporary language--ranging from dry and austere to rich and colorful--alternate and at times commingle in building from contemplative suspense to a gradual mounting of intensity and the final unleashing of savage vehemence that takes over and possesses the mind in which it has nested.