Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sea-Snatch and The Praises of God: A Look at Two of Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs

The summer is winding down and it's time to get to work on some pieces that are scheduled to be performed in the fall. Instead of just learning the notes and keeping all of my thoughts to myself, I thought it would be fun to share what I'm learning about the pieces and any practice tips I discover along the way.

First, we need to know a little about the Hermit Songs themselves. This cycle of 10 songs was composed in 1953 by Barber and was premiered that same year by Leontyne Price with the composer at the piano.

Sea-Snatch is the 6th song in the cycle and features an ostinato bass line in the piano that serves as the unifying figure of the work. The surging accompaniment is mostly in alternating rhythmic patterns of five and four. Melodically, the bass line continually keeps the opening vocal line before us.

One of the technical challenges the pianist faces is exacerbated by the tendency of many singers and pianists to rush the perpetual eighth notes just as the difficult parallel fourths appear in measures 7. A similar passage returns at the song's conclusion (beginning in measure 27). Let's look at the first of these passages. While the musical structure is one continuous legato line, the phrase is technically divided into groups of two; the successive F's in the fourths can easily be played with the index finger, providing a nice anchor for the entire passage.

The interlude between the verses is the most active passage of the short song. Upon listening to various recordings -- including Barber accompanying Price -- it is clear that the passage is demanding and rarely played cleanly. Some pianists recommend dropping some of the octaves for single notes instead. Others opt to simplify the right hand.  At this point, I am not using either of these options. To aid in fitting things together, I continued using block chords as found on the downbeat of measure 20 before slowly breaking the chords into the two eighth note figure.

The most helpful discovery came from listening to the Barber/Price recording. Barber inserts two rather sizable lifts, interrupting the accompaniment's perpetual motion.  These breaks occur at the end of measure 9 and again just before the final two chords in the lowest register of the piano. Additionally, the composer took a bit of time in measure 19 before launching into the massive interlude.

Once the notes are in hand, settling on a tempo that is comfortable for both pianist and singer will be essential. I am certain there will be a compromise made as we prepare for recital.

The 9th piece in the cycle is The Praises of God and poses some challenges for my relatively small hands. The piece is largely built on broken tenths; to further complicate things, the metric organization appears much more complex than what is commonly found in Barber's other songs. What I found most helpful was to begin with the B major section in the middle of the song first. This section begins firmly in 6/8 and remains in that meter through the end of the vocal line. Next, I turned my attention to the postlude and acquainted myself with the broken 10ths of the accompaniment. Most of the tenths move in third relationships (but beware of the fifth movement in measure 28 though!)

The most challenging portion of the song for me was the transition into the B major section (measures 10-12). I'm not sure if this is due to the dastardly annoying page turn separating measure 12 from the others or the inclusion of a measure of 3/8 before shifting back to 5/8. Regardless of the reason, this is the passage with which I will be spending a lot of time in the weeks ahead.

For now, it's time to head back to the practice room and continue working on these beautiful songs at slow tempi before adding the vocal line to the ensemble!