Samuel Barber – A Centenary Tribute by Ian Venables

‘Beautiful, my delight, once more’

A Centenary Tribute and personal reflection on Samuel Barber’s 

‘To be sung on the water Op.42, No 2’

Looking through the many musical tributes planned this year to celebrate the centenary of the great American composer Samuel Barber, it is of course entirely fitting that they should focus upon his major works. There are however, a number of other concerts that have concentrated instead upon Barber’s significant contribution to the 20th century vocal music repertoire. It is here, amongst his smaller scale works that one finds Barber at his most intimate and if one sifts carefully through the background and most importantly the texts of these works one discovers a hidden narrative that sheds light upon the complex nature of this very private man. In this short essay, I would like to pick up this narrative towards the end of Barber’s career was he beset by a number of artistic and personal problems.    

It is generally recognised that Barber’s final years were overshadowed by creative self-doubts and failing health. Many commentators have since suggested that Barber’s decline into alcoholism and depression during the early 1970’s was due principally to the aftermath of the poor reception of his opera Antony and Cleopatra, which was premiered in December 1966. This view quickly became the accepted one and was even perpetuated by those who claimed to know him well. Following Barber’s death in 1981, his publisher Hans Heinsheimer, wrote, ‘Antony and Cleopatra was a turning point in the life of Barber. It was a terrible catastrophe from which he never recovered’ 1. Although, the opera’s chaotically staged first performance and subsequent critical reviews may have been contributing factors, his biographer Barbara Heyman rightly points out, that ‘it is an exaggeration to attribute Barber’s creative blocks and physical decline entirely to one so-called musical failure’ 2.  

Of much greater significance, in my opinion, was Barber’s changing personal circumstances at this time, and in particular, the mounting tensions in his relationship with his life long partner Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007). Of course, without supporting biographical evidence, it may be impossible to uncover the true reasons for their eventual separation. However, I believe that Barber has in his late works, provided a series of clues and coded messages which when deciphered in the light of what is known about their relationship, presents us with a much clearer understanding of what lay at the heart of Barber’s emotional difficulties.

The years in question covers the period 1967-1973, when the strain between Barber and Menotti reached a crucial point, and culminated in their formal break up in 1973 with the sale of ‘Capricorn’, their home for 30 years. During this time Barber composed three significant works – the song cycle, Despite and Still, Op.41 (1968), Two Choral Works, Op.42 (1968) and the large scale choral cantata, The Lovers, Op.43 (1971). All these works relied upon texts for the source for their inspiration. Given the background of these troubled years, the autobiographical nature of both the 

song-cycle and cantata can be inferred with reasonable certainty; however, the personal significance for Barber of the second of the two unaccompanied choral pieces is perhaps rather less obvious, and the works seeming simplicity has I believe masked a important underlying biographical narrative that has been overlooked. 

Barber completed To be sung on the water, Op.42, No 2 on the 14th December 1968. This a cappella work is a poignant elegy to the fragility of love and is Barber’s cathartic response to the underlying difficulties he was having in his relationship with Gian Carlo Menotti.  His choice of text and his setting of it gives a rare glimpse into the inner world of this enigmatic man. It reveals the depth of his emotional turmoil and his struggle to come to terms with loss and the concomitant feelings of sorrow and regret. Barber’s work is a setting of a lyric poem by Louise Bogan, whose subject is the mourning for the loss of love. The poem’s valedictory tone and transient imagery evoke echoes of nostalgia and a time that was. The overwhelming feeling is one of acceptance in the face of inevitability. The poet tells that ‘vows were made’ and that they were innocent and guiltless. 

 We will never know what promises were exchanged between Barber and Menotti back in 1928, but 40 years later the feelings they engendered returned like Banquo’s ghost to haunt the composer. 

The music opens with a gentle rocking figure in the lower voices on the words, ‘Beautiful, my delight’. [Fig 1.] 


[Fig 1.]


[Fig 1. cont]

This principal motif acts as an ostinato upon which the poem’s narrative is played out in the upper voices. This lilting figure evokes an image of ripples shimmering upon a moonlit lake – itself a metaphor for the passage of time. Barber’s antiphonal organisation of the vocal parts is revealing, as the men’s voices sing predominantly intervals of the 2nd, 4th and 5th, while the women’s voices sing in more harmonious 3rds and 6ths. The overall mood of the first stanza is one of peaceful resignation and this is particularly felt on the words ‘Leaves what it cannot save’. [Fig 2.]


[Fig 2.]

At this cadential point, the falling fourth of ‘cannot’ is underpinned by a G minor 7 chord of remarkable beauty and tenderness. It is one of the few moments of radiant warmth in the whole piece. The second stanza, is I would argue the emotional core of the work and by way of an introduction, Barber deftly swaps the parts around, so that the women’s voices now sing the ostinato figure ‘Beautiful, my delight’, but this time in 3rds and 6ths, whilst the men’s voices sing the all-important lines: ‘Less than the guiltless shade / To which our vows were said’ [Fig 3.]


[Fig 3.]

One of the most extraordinary features of this passage occurs on the line ‘To which our vows were said’. On the word  ‘were’, Barber adds a pungent F sharp to the harmony – the only accidental in the work – that momentarily disrupts the tranquil sound world. Why has Barber added such an discordant note, as there seems to be no obvious musical reason for doing so? Was Barber’s attempt, in the words of Robert Frost, ‘to yield with a grace to reason’ in reality tinged with bitterness and regret?  

This passage leads to the work’s central climax, marked f espressivo.  At this pivotal moment, Barber brings all the parts together for the first time, in a powerful expression of emotion. The key line, ‘To which our vows were made’ is repeated no less that three times in the lower parts, as if to emphasise their personal significance.  The music then subsides on the final couplet:

‘Less than the sound of its blade

Dipping the stream once more’

Although, this brings to a conclusion Barber’s setting of Bogan’s two-stanza poem the music does not end here. Barber’s masterstroke is to provide a composite third stanza of his own making drawn from elements of the poem’s 1st and 2nd stanzas.

Barber’s third stanza reads: 

Beautiful, my delight

Pass, as we pass the wave

Pass, as the mottled night

Leaves what it cannot save,

Less than the sound of its blade

Dipping the stream once more

This additional verse does give the work a satisfying tri-partite musical structure, but it also acts symbolically to add another layer of meaning – one that I believe, reveals the true nature of the coded messages imbedded in this work.

In the score, Barber has marked the beginning of this 3rd stanza with the direction ‘pp like an echo’. This instruction transports the listener out of the present – as represented by the first and second stanzas – and into the past. It is, as if Barber was drawing upon his memories in order to recapture once more the feelings of that timeless moment. As music dies way, Barber ends the work on a note of questioning ambiguity.  On the last line, ‘Dipping the stream once more’, Barber restates the works opening ostinato figure on the words, ‘Beautiful, my delight’, but this time they are sung by the men’s voices only. [Fig 4.] 


[Fig 4.]

These words are now combined in one continuous phrase with the words, ‘once more’ thus returning the listener to the present. In doing this, Barber has provided a clear intimation of his hopes for reconciliation with Menotti. He has also hinted at yet another question. Can the vows that were made, be ‘remade’ once more?

‘To be sung on the water’ is a profound outpouring by a composer who was desperately trying to come to terms with the passing of love. Its subtle and restrained beauty is in stark contrast to the more passionate and highly charged emotional world of his subsequent cantata, ‘The Lovers’ – at the heart of which stands Pablo Neruda’s powerful poem – ‘Tonight I can write the saddest lines’, with its declaration,  Love is so short, forgetting is so long’. The defiant feelings that characterise this work are entirely absent from the stoical acceptance of, ‘To be sung on the water’. 

In the end, it was not perhaps the ephemeral trappings of fame and success that marred Samuel Barber’s last years, but the irrevocable loss of love itself. The music at the end of this haunting work fades away into nothingness, with its ppp marking acting as a metaphor for the final dissolution of that love.  To be sung on the water’, can therefore be seen as an expression of the eternal theme so movingly expressed by the English poet W.B Yeats:

‘Man is in Love and loves what vanishes,

What more is there to say?’


  1. Barbara B. Heyman, Samuel Barber – The Composer and His Music p.461
  2. Ibid, p.462