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Souvenirs, Op. 28

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Samuel Barber
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: NEW MOVES: symphony + dance: Thomas Wilkins, conductor; New Ballet Ensemble / From Gershwin to Ellington May 10 - 13, 2014
© Thomas May

One takeaway from the commemorations of the Samuel Barber (1910-1981) centenary four years ago was how surprisingly neglected much of his music is. While not an especially prolific composer, Barber didn't limit himself to the brand of American Romanticism that immediately comes to mind with his "blockbuster" hit and perennial favorite, the Adagio for Strings-or with his Violin Concerto and the vocal-orchestral Knoxville: Summer of 1915, for that matter.

For one of his ballet scores-a treatment of the ancient classical Medea story for Martha Graham, completed in 1946, just a few years after Aaron Copland's commission for Appalachian Spring-Barber was prompted to write music whose "frank violence" was noted by the critic Virgil Thomson. He added that Barber had been liberated from his "well-bred attitudinizing and mincing respectabilities."

And yet an entirely different direction is followed by another ballet score from the 1950s. Souvenirs began as a bit of private musical entertainment for piano from 1952-the instrument for which Barber had first tried his hand at composing. That had been when he was a boy of seven; along with his piece young Barber sent his mother a note informing her that he had a "worrying secret," namely, that he "was meant to be a composer."

Barber's biographer Barbara Heyman reports that the composer's mother used to take her son to the Palm Court of the Plaza Hotel for tea on trips to New York-memory he tapped into when he wrote a set of duets for himself and his friend Charles Turner (piano four-hands) in the style of six different types of dances a salon orchestra might play in the Palm Court in "about 1914, epoch of the first tangos," observed the composer. But such "souvenirs" were "remembered with affection, not in irony or with tongue in cheek, but in amused tenderness." This version of Souvenirs for piano became a favorite among Barber's inner circle and was often trotted out at parties. (A two-piano version was also recorded by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, at the time a popular piano duo.)

Lincoln Kirstein, the co-founder of New York City Ballet, commissioned Barber to orchestrate the pieces for a ballet. Budget problems and other interruptions delayed the premiere of the new ballet Souvenirs until 1955. In the meantime, one London critic of a performance of the orchestral version declared that Souvenirs was "likely to rival the Adagio for Strings in popularity, even if it is not one of the composer's finest works, nor truly representative of his style."

Barber's Souvenirs stylishly surveys the following dance types, in this order: the waltz, schottische, pas de deux, two-step, "hesitation tango" (Barber's phrase), and galop. Anchoring these different dances in a setting reminiscent of the Palm Court and of a more-innocent time in America, the choreographer, Todd Bolender devised a cheeky and mischievous scenario of pantomime and dance in the silent film era. Bolender and the costume and set designer drew on imagery from early-20th-century fashion magazines to create a story set in a seaside resort hotel just before the start of World War One.

Heyman quotes the response from the New York critic Francis Herridge, who described "a thoroughly engaging potpourri of Mack Sennett bathing girls, thin-mustached Lotharios and bloodthirsty vampires." Along with a parody of "Irene Castle dance styles [the opening waltz]," the ballet unfolded in brief sketches involving "a hotel hallway farce [the schottische], three wall flowers at a dance [the pas de deux, from "a corner of the ballroom"], a bedroom seduction [the hesitation tango], and an afternoon on the beach ["the next afternoon," with its galop finale]."