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Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty

DVD Button Documentary directed by H. Paul Moon. Appearances by Leonard Slatkin, Thomas Hampson, Marin Alsop, John Corigliano, William Sharp and others. Zen Violence Films, 130 mins., subtitles

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THIS COMPREHENSIVE DOCUMENTARY looks at the musical legacy of one of the great American twentieth-century composers. H. Paul Moon, with the help of Samuel Barber biographer Barbara B. Heyman, has assembled an impressive array of talking heads, performers and Barber memorabilia, tracing the composer’s life and work through discussion, demonstration and evocative visuals.

Many of Barber’s works are given time for examination in this 130-minute study, and while it threatens to teeter into the academic, the filmmaker pulls it back by evoking Barber himself, through his music and the recollections of friends and colleagues, capturing the somber mood of the man as channeled through his compositions. 

Barber-expert Heyman supplies information and insight culled for her excellent book, and the film is peppered with her appearances, which neatly balance fact with enthusiasm. Conductors Marin Alsop and Leonard Slatkin offer thoughts about Barber’s great skill as an orchestrator; Slatkin also adds personal memories of the composer, as does composer John Corigliano. A slew of instrumentalists and vocalists appear in excerpts from his various concertos—for cello, piano, violin—as well as solo instrumental works, chamber music, song cycles, symphonic works, and a bit of his operatic output. Many of the soloists are younger, making the composer’s work feel especially relevant.

There’s also interview footage of Barber, revealing of his personality and manner, and audio of Gian Carlo Menotti, Virgil Thompson, Aaron Copland and Leontyne Price on the person and his art. The film is more moving as it explores the complex relationship between Barber and his life-and-work partner, Menotti. You sense deeply the sadness that overcame the composer, particularly later in his life, and his sense of isolation. 

Barber famously wrote to his mother at the age of eight, expressing his intention to become a composer, pleading with her not to make him play football. His aunt was the famous mezzo soprano Louise Homer, and her husband, a composer, fully supported Barber’s musical ambitions. At Curtis, he met Menotti, and their existence seemed for a time to be charmed. In 1936, he composed the Adagio for Strings, which became and remained his most famous piece, something he resented on behalf of his others. Though he was viewed by some as conservative for a twentieth-century composer, he could, and would, demonstrate a more radical approach in works such as his Medea ballet Cave of the Heart, scored for Martha Graham, or his Piano Sonata, composed for Vladimir Horowitz—the nearly-impossible-to-play fugue in the final movement created ostensibly after the pianist’s wife told Barber he was “a constipated composer.” 

Opera lovers’ interest will center on Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra, both composed for the Metropolitan Opera. Vanessa was received rapturously at its initial Met run, garnering a Pulitzer Prize, but it was largely dismissed by critics abroad and had only two Met revivals. Antony and Cleopatra, which opened the new Met at Lincoln Center, was a legendary flop, the opera drowned by the overproduced Franco Zeffirelli spectacle in which it was trapped. This failure left Barber devastated, feeling it was pointless composing anymore. 

By the end of the film, one is deeply moved by the journey of this artist, who knew what he wanted from an early age, seemed on a path of promise and productivity but then ended his life overcome with sadness and disappointment. The irony is amplified by the musical excerpts, demonstrating astounding versatility and passion. Marin Alsop says that Barber is all about pacing and architecture while at the same time being Romantic. One senses his great skill in the former—and his tremendous longing in the latter.  —Ira Siff



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