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Thursday, September 08, 2016

Sidney Homer and Samuel Barber: Letters to a Young Composer

I'm reading Barbara Heyman's magisterial book about Samuel Barber, a must -read for anyone who loves music and wants to know about process.

Barber (1910-1981) best known for Adagio for Strings, Knoxville Summer of 1915, Essays for Orchestra, School for Scandal Overture, the operas Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra,  and magnificent concerti for piano, for violin and for cello, was the nephew of the great contralto Louise Homer (1871-1947).



As much as an influence as 'Aunt Louise' must have been, she was Toscanini's Orfeo at the Met, it composer and educator Sidney Homer (18965-1953) that young Sam Barber found a nurturing influence. Heyman's book features many letters from 'Uncle Sid', filled with the kind of advice, encouragement and occasional kick in the pants any young person would be lucky to have from a mentor.


Don't miss Barbara Heyman's book. Sidney Homer's autobiography My Wife and I is a wonderful look at top level music making a century ago. There's alsoa  good discussion of Louise Homer's career in Andrew Davis's The American Opera Singer. Not to be missed is Anne Homer's biography of her mother, Louise Homer and the Gold Age of Opera. 

I can't date these letters from Sidney to Sam. Barber wrote to his Uncle from age 10 until shortly before Sidney Homer died in 1953.

Letters to Samuel Barber from Sidney Homer
c. 1925-1945

From Samuel Barber, the Composer and his Music  by Barbara Heyman

There are three things you must aim for definitely. The first is the development of taste that should, in time, amount to a passion for the best music in all forms.  Your whole life will be influenced by the forming of your taste in the next few years.

Taste is formed by coming into close and intimate contact with the great works of the masters. The way to do this is to look ahead and see what programs are to be given ...you can't attend all the concerts, therefore you pick the best. Suppose for instance, the Flonzaly Quartet is going to play a Beethoven Quartet. You get your ticket and you buy a copy of the quartet beforehand. You then learn more in an hour at the performance than you possibly could learn in any other way in a year.

Everything depends now on the development of your taste and the refinement of your sensibilities. If you think of music from the point of view of sensationalism and publicity, your work will show it. If you learn to love the poetic undercurrent and the subtleties of beauty  and spirituality which have been expressed in music, your work will show it just as much.



____


The wonderful thing about art is that a man can conceal nothing; it reveals him as naked and unadorned...Sincerity and beauty seem to stand the test, but love for mankind and willingness to serve humbly seem to fill the world with joy.

_____

You don't need opinions. A little praise is pleasant if you don't have to go too far out of your way to get it, but you will have to learn to get along without opinions.  Opinions don't change a note of add to your stature. If you can give pleasure, well and good. Your work is your own affair and yours only.  Depending on opinion means less independence in your work. It also means laying yourself open to pinpricks which may be boresome. It can result in uncertainty. Even too much praise can do things, introduce a smirk and too much gush in your style.
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The paucity of titles in the musical world is alarming. It indicates a lack. Perhaps language is inadequate. If so, then young men like you must invent something and not go on serenading and suite-ing.

____

I can imagine how Beethoven felt when they stormed at him for writing the third symphony. If he believed all they said he could feel like a criminal, a debaser of public taste. I do not know a single man who hasn't had rocks in his life. Brahms had plenty. A good deal depends on how we handle them. They may not be so serious in themselves, but if we get flustered and lose our heads we can force them to do us considerable harm...Poise, equanimity, philosophy, a sense of proportion, gratitude for what we have, a "calm center", fixed determination and an inflexible purpose are all to the good.

Resentment, impatience, self pity, exaggerated self deprecation, an intense consciousness of the need of making good in the eyes of others, a lack of grit in meeting emergencies, a general complaining of spirit and weak sporting blood are all to the bad.

Take some boy you know and put him in your place. He wrote your sonata, and your serenade, and struggled with your concerto. How do you regard him, dispassionately? Do you congratulate him on his gifts and what he has achieved and feel that, with good sense and intelligent self-control, he can carry his powers to a high state of development, or do you feel that he is a broken reed, a cracked canoe, smashed on the rocks of a difficult concerto, a hopeless wreck because his teacher does not agree with his opinion of his latest work? Take a sincere, objective view of your friend and make up your mind how  you wish him to feel and proceed. Then act accordingly. Don't dodge. Be as strict with yourself as you would be with him.



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There is one thing that I want to make clear  to you and that is that resentment does not get us anywhere. It only eats the heart out of the resenter, and what good is there to that? I often think that a good friend could have saved Bizet's life at the time Carmen was produced. Patience and a sense of humor are wonderful lifesavers...Through it all a rhinoceros hide is a good thing. The bigger the talent the tougher the hide, say I....Resentment eats the heart, but philosophy is an armor that protects the source of future work which is the one thing that must be kept inviolate.

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