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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Summer, Samuel Barber and Gregory Chaucer

I was 15 when I heard Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” for the very first time. My orchestra teacher mixed me a couple of cassette tapes of her favorite music for my listening pleasure over the summer. There, nestled among Dvorak and Elgar’s Cello Concertos, Smetna’s “Moldau” and Gershwin’s Greatest Hits lay this musical tour of emotion, from deepest despair to highest ecstasy. Just what a 15 year-old needs to hear.


I put on my headphones and clicked “play” on the walkman. Into hiss of the lead came what sounded to me like what the first breath of Adam must have sounded like. I could imagine the sound of dying at the end. All of life is lived in the middle, the highest point of ecstasy and fullness.


Samuel Barber’s famous piece is not that old (1936) and is probably one of the most recognizable pieces today by any audience. His masterwork has appeared in more than 30 film or TV scores (The Elephant Man and Platoon, to name a couple--the perfect choice for the first film and a horrible choice for the second) and has long surpassed “overplay.”

For me the piece is best enjoyed late on a hot summer night, lights out, earphones in. Then I am able to breathe . . . and feel.

I got to thinking about all this after reading a short article on Chaucer, of the tales-within-tale fame of Canterbury. The connection between these specific pieces of music and literature is made in the same year, at nearly the same time.

I’ve always been a reader and when I acquired a copy of Canterbury Tales in Old English (along with other books) the same 15-year-old summer, after flipping through the pages I found a book that had to be read. Now, my age (then) and the roller-coaster of emotion had nothing to do with the tales themselves--racy as they are; rather, the intrigue lay in the melodic reading, the sound of Old English, out loud. It was (and still is) beautiful in sound.

Perhaps these two pieces help describe who I am: a lover of beauty and sound. I appreciate light and color, but ask me not to cover a canvas! I will personally insult the artist there--but give me paper, pen--a book and an instrument.

And Summer.

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