Barber and the Associative Property of Timbre

The power of association plays a large role in how music affects us. Seems pretty obvious, right? If we hear something in a work that we can connect with something familiar, the work will seem more personal. Additionally, using types of music with which the audience has prior associations grounds the audience and helps them understand what the composer wants them to hear. This allows for a bit more freedom in composition because the composer won’t have to work so hard to get his or her point across.

Samuel Barber uses this technique in his cycle “Hermit Songs,” composed in 1953. The texts for this cycle were taken from translations of writings by Irish monks, ranging from the 8th to the 13th century. Their topics range from penance to promiscuity to cats! The cycle is gorgeous and highly rewarding for both performer and listener. But what makes this work particularly fascinating is the way Barber sets the text. In his settings, he both maintains reverence for the time period in which the texts were written, and updates them to his style of composition. The works are not tonal (though not altogether atonal) and quite challenging for both pianist and vocalist, but they’re fairly easy to listen to. This has a lot to do with the connotations Barber draws upon in his music. Here are a few examples of the most obvious references Barber makes in these songs:

1. St. Patrick’s Pilgrimage: In this song, we can hear the heavy plodding of the journeying pilgrim. This “walking motive” is evocative of songs of previous composers (think Schubert’s Winterreise).

3. St. Ita’s Vision: Following the declamatory recitative-like intro, this song settles into a delicate lullaby duet between piano and voice. By suggesting a lullaby, Barber gives this song an incredibly personal touch and paints the picture of mother with child. His use of the piano in this song is very telling as well—he avoids the noisier lower notes in favor of the middle to high range, and his articulations call for smooth and gentle lines.

6. Sea Snatch: The rollicking chords of this song hint at a sea shanty, or a storm-tossed boat, but the uneven meters keep it from descending to banality. Barber also uses the lower, noisier, rumbling notes in the piano, conjuring rough seas.

8. The Monk and his Cat: This song includes jazz references that speak to the monk’s easy relationship with his cat. Additionally, Barber uses different articulations to represent the two “characters.” The monk is symbolized in flowing, arpeggiated lines while the cat often appears in the chopped, impulsive, blocked chords. The cat can also be heard “padding” chromatically upward through the piano in the brief interludes.

The cycle was originally written with soprano Leontyne Price in mind. She premiered them, with the composer at the piano, at the Library of Congress in 1953. If you have access to a music library or a resource like Spotify, listen to the Price/Barber recordings; they are amazing and you can be sure that these are the closest to what the composer himself intended. Unfortunately, most of the Price recordings on YouTube are of poor audio quality.  The only complete recording I can find is Gerald Finely’s. While it is an excellent recording, the fact that he is a baritone changes some aspects. Obviously, the vocal timbre of a baritone is very different from that of a soprano. Merely by virtue of this, he can’t sing these songs as a soprano would. Yet no two sopranos will sound the same either.  That is why the comparison of vocal works can be so interesting from a timbral perspective; with each new performer comes a new instrument.

If you can, listen to the recordings of Leontyne Price or Barbara Bonney

If not, here are some YouTube links:

An example of Price singing the 3rd song of the cycle:

Barbara Bonney singing the 5th song:

The entire Gerald Finley recording can be found here:



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