Certain composers are so ubiquitous that to celebrate them seems unnecessary, especially as many others languish in relative obscurity. Still, every few years the public is reminded of the anniversary of a particular composer’s birth, prompting a slew of concerts, festivals, and conferences worldwide. This year marks the bi-centennial of Polish composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) as well as the centennial of American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981). Always fashionable, Chopin continues to enjoy a richly celebrated anniversary, but oddly, Barber’s music has been seldom highlighted, even during this momentous year.
The juxtaposition of these two geniuses, one who died young and unpopular only to emerge as the most celebrated composer of Romantic piano music, and the other who lived long but is primarily associated with his most famous piece, Adagio for Strings, speaks to how we regard mainstream classical music today. In the end, anniversary years do less to boost the popularity of composers than to reveal how popular they already are.
Chopin withstands the great test of classical music staying power—he is loved by people who know little about music, yet also considered an artist of the highest quality by performers. In his lifetime, he rose to modest fame in his adopted home of Paris, but his declining health was a continuous burden until his early death of tuberculosis. The great Chopin interpreter Garrick Ohlsson extravagantly captures the popular misperception of the composer as a “neurasthenic tubercular who dipped his pen in perfume to write nocturnes for lovesick contessas.”
The “poet of the piano” holds a deep-seated affection in our culture, and his anniversary is proof that Chopin still sells. This year there will be more than 2,000 worldwide events honoring him, and for good reason. His music overflows with lush harmonies and pianistic bravura, and his command of melody was unparalleled in his day. Anyone who ever studied piano has encountered Chopin, and his music’s difficulty ranges from nocturnes and mazurkas accessible to students to the veritable athletic encyclopedia of the Twenty-Four Études.
While Chopin looms large this year, his shadow has been unfortunately cast over the great American composer Samuel Barber. Highly regarded in his life, Barber’s contribution to American music is obscured by the legacies of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, who played more to the public’s taste. A freethinking composer who eschewed both academic and popular styles, Barber is now known largely for his heartrending Adagio for Strings, a transcendent piece synonymous with unfettered emotion. Yet, Barber’s oeuvre contains variety and depth beyond that one piece. Like Chopin, he was a master of melody, and his perfect setting of James Agee in Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for soprano and orchestra fuses the voice and instruments into a symbiotic whole. Contrastingly, his architectural Piano Concerto demonstrates an utter mastery of counterpoint and orchestration.
The heaviest criticism leveled at Chopin is his limited range of genre. He wrote little more than piano music. But this may have also been part of his genius. As pianos became more common in middle class homes, Chopin seized a fresh market. Barber, on the other hand, did not limit himself at all. His output covers all corners of symphonic, solo, and chamber music, and his style is difficult to pin down. At a time when popular and classical music were just starting to collide, Samuel Barber composed for himself. Though a handful of festivals are celebrating him this year, general audiences may never fully appreciate the richest of his labors.