THE LEGACY SERIES: ‘SAMUEL BARBER: ABSOLUTE BEAUTY’ – A NEW DOCUMENTARY FILM BY H. PAUL MOON
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) has long been regarded as one of America’s greatest composers. He has received a number of fine biographies in the past but now we have a full length documentary film, ‘Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty’ by Washington, D.C. filmmaker H. Paul Moon. It will be released at the end of March 2017. Barber’s music has achieved almost unequalled pubic resonance through his touching Adagio for Strings, though he wrote a wide variety of very fine orchestral music, concertos and vocal works that enshrine his legacy. His concertos were championed early on by Isaac Stern, John Browning and Zara Nelsova; Howard Hanson, Leonard Bernstein and Thomas Schippers conducted and recorded many of his other works. In more recent times, conductors Leonard Slatkin and Marin Alsop have championed the orchestral pieces, and Thomas Hampson his songs, and all three artists make an appearance in this film. It is with pleasure that Vancouver Classical Music invites the filmmaker to share his motivation and inspiration with us.
Samuel Barber has always been my favorite composer. It starts there, but the bigger reason for making a documentary about him was to make up for neglect: independent cinema has a scarcity of documentaries about classical music, and the audience’s hunger for them is underestimated. Also, Barber’s oeuvre has been almost exclusively identified with one work, his Adagio for Strings, popularized widely by Oliver Stone’s relentless use of it in ‘Platoon’ and perennially used as a memorial work at historic moments of grieving, from the deaths of FDR and JFK to the tragedy of 9/11. But Barber wrote so much more than the Adagio, ranging from works of innocence to those of violence. Thinking about his whole life in music, major 20th century themes converge: loss of faith, musical modernism battling emotionality and tradition and, no less important, the plight of a gay underground of classical musicians and composers (of which he was part) whose sexuality could never attach to their public identities in a conservative world.
Documentaries about popular music can be accused of navel-gazing, but when we immerse into a performance of classical music, it is usually formal and from a distance. A prime artistic objective of this film was to celebrate the physicality of classical musicians when they perform the music of Barber. Meticulous, complex, and absorbed into his pervasive melancholy, a great performance communicates much more than words. Resisting a narrator, I structured the film from Barber’s opus numbers in strict chronological order, finding biographical clues in the music to create a non-linear narrative that tells the story of his life.
Starting with the ebb and flow of tides in Dover Beach that he composed at age 21, Barber always stayed true to his inner voice. But the rise of modernism pushed Barber out of fashion, and with the failure of his opera Antony and Cleopatra (up against impossible expectations to open the new Met), his creative life deteriorated. Behind the curtains, his private life with composer Gian-Carlo Menotti that began as classmates was also fated to dissolve under the weight of social mores, and as a natural outcome of the collision of two creative geniuses. Rising from this sadness of Barber’s later years, prophesied in his music, we are left with a body of work that stands the test of time, ‘despite and still.’
The documentary journey consults many authorities on the life and music of the composer. We meet Barber’s primary biographer, Barbara Heyman, a sort of detective who wants to know why he wrote the music he did. We meet his French biographer, Pierre Brévignon, connecting the American composer with his European origin and rapid international reach. We consult author Thomas Larson on why the Adagio has had such enduring cultural impact and the capacity to heal in times of mourning. Then, leading artists perform key musical passages, in rehearsal and in concert, revealing processes of interpretation and mastery that demonstrate Barber’s enduring legacy. Included are legends such as Thomas Hampson, Leonard Slatkin, Marin Alsop, John Corigliano, and more.
Because there now remain so few people who knew the composer well, the film also makes use of previously unreleased audio recordings of English composer Peter Dickinson dating from around the time of Barber’s death, accessing the oral history of people who were closest to him. Rather than hearsay, one can hear many nuances in their direct testimony, with the added drama of competing accounts and divergent perspectives.
‘Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty’ is an independent – yet international – production, traveling from Washington, D.C. and New York City to Paris, France; and from West Chester and Philadelphia to the house named ‘Capricorn’ in Mount Kisco, New York where Barber shared a home with Menotti. The film came together slowly over a 7-year period, building upon every rare opportunity to document a performance of Barber's music. In the meantime, I created other films within this narrow niche of classical music documentaries, including ‘Sitka: A Piano Documentary’ about the craftsmanship of Steinway pianos (www.sitkadoc.com), and ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ about Olivier Messiaen's transcendent wartime composition (www.quatuor.xyz). Both stream freely online.
Full information about ‘Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty’ is available at its website: www.samuelbarberfilm.com
© H. Paul Moon 2017