Toccata festiva, op. 36

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        If any composer may truly be considered our national composer, this writer’s vote is for Samuel Barber. Notwithstanding Aaron Copland’s populist music from the 1930s and 40s, most of the latter composer’s compositions in other musical styles are not well received by the American public--too dissonant and modern! On the other hand, no major American composer of the twentieth century was a more ardent and eloquent champion of the lyrical, accessible, yet modern idiom than Samuel Barber. His musical style is founded in the romantic traditions of the nineteenth century, and built upon and extended the harmonic language and formal structures of that time. Unlike so many of his peers, he was not powerfully swayed by the modernism emanating from Europe after World War I, but pursued his own path.

        Consistently lyrical throughout his career, it is telling that his songs constitute about two-thirds of his compositions in number. His vocal works include two major operas, Vanessa (1956), and Antony and Cleopatra (1966), the latter composed for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera House. He composed at least one work for almost every musical genre, and unlike most composers, he was a recognized and published composer from his student days. At the age of twenty-one his overture to The School for Scandal was an instant success, was forthwith published, and remains in the standard repertoire. Though his choral music and solo vocal music are mainstays of concerts, it is an instrumental work that is his best-known composition--the Adagio for Strings, championed by Toscanini when Barber was only twenty-eight years old. The vocally-inspired lyricism of that work is emblematic of all that Barber wrote, even in the most vigorous of works. The Toccata festiva for organ and orchestra, written in 1960, is a most fitting  celebration of the orchestral organ! And, to be sure, it’s another opportunity to hear more from one who gets my vote for our most distinguished composer.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan