The Kennedy Center

Overture to The School for Scandal

About the Work

Samuel Barber Composer: Samuel Barber
© Thomas May

"My new piece for orchestra goes well, but it is an effort to work at it!" These words are from a letter Samuel Barber wrote to his parents in the summer of 1931, when he was studying in Italy. There were, after all, competing distractions: "Generally we work from one until five of the afternoon, playing tennis in the morning when there are no shadows on the court."

The 21-year-old Barber had moreover set himself a challenging goal. He was at work on his first composition for orchestra: his Overture The School for Scandal, the classic comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816)-a play of intrigue propelled by conversational tennis matches, the playwright's glittering repartee anticipating the bite of Oscar Wilde over a century later. With this delicious satire of social manners from 1777, the Anglo-Irish Sheridan, who also owned the legendary Drury Lane Theatre in London, achieved what early-19th-century critic William Hazlitt called "perhaps the most finished and faultless comedy which we have."

Young Barber numbered among the first crop of students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied piano, composition, and voice (baritone). He was also required to take non-musical courses in the humanities and avidly immersed himself in his classes on foreign languages and literature at Curtis-a passion reflected in his sensibility as a composer throughout his later life. Biographer Barbara B. Heyman observes that "virtually all of [Barber's] large-scale orchestral works, with the exception of the two symphonies, carry literary allusions; yet he would not admit to programmatic intentions even in those cases where he assigned specific literary titles."

In other words, not too much should be read into the link to Sheridan's play. Even the genre idea of an "overture" here is a bit misleading. Barber later pointed out that his aim was not at all to write a literal overture (to be followed by incidental music for an actual production of the play-the ultimate program music?). Rather, the piece was intended as "a musical reflection of the play's spirit."

Despite all the tennis matches and hiking expeditions with fellow Curtis student (and lover) Gian Carlo Menotti, in addition to regular lessons with his mentor, Rosario Scalero, Barber did manage to complete the work in time for the new semester back in Philadelphia. But it was a while before he was able to hear it performed. Heyman reports that Fritz Reiner, at the time the conductor of the Curtis Orchestra, declined a request to program it.

When the Overture was finally scheduled-its premiere came two years later, in 1933, when the Philadelphia Orchestra presented the piece as part of an outdoor concert- Barber could not attend. Ironically, the score had won him an award that took him back to Italy. The conductor Walter Damrosch chose the Overture as part of his programming for the 1939 World's Fair in New York, and the first recording-disliked by the composer owing to inept tempo choices-came in 1944, with Werner Janssen leading the Symphony Orchestra of Los Angeles.

Although the Overture to The School for Scandal was Barber's first official orchestral composition-or perhaps for that very reason-right away he decided to deploy a large apparatus. And he pulled it off with astonishing élan. The piece launches with a piquant dissonance-E-flat minor chords against bright D major-that Barber intensifies with his orchestration, sprinkling the sound of the triangle on top of layered brass and strings. Here's a "bite" (prefaced with a snappy grace note, a significant gesture in the music to come) that mirrors the vicious side of Sheridan's badinage.

The rhythmic verve of Barber's style in this music is also remarkable, while his acclaimed melodic gift is already on display in the long-limbed solo melody heard first on oboe (and eventually, in the reprise, on English horn), with a slightly antique modal flavor. From these elements Barber fashions a delightful, well-proportioned, thoroughly confident composition that has proved time and again its efficacy as a concert opener.