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Connecting to Samuel Barber: A young musician’s experience with a manuscript

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The following is a guest post from Concert Office intern Rachael Sanguinetti

As a young singer, Samuel Barber’s vocal works are a prominent part of my musical life. Barber’s English songs have been a part of my repertoire from my earliest years of voice lessons around age 15 and have remained with me through my college years. His works are known by voice teachers as stepping stones to more complex works, pieces that can be studied at a young age and still be performed well. As a singer matures, Barber’s songs can be revisited and will display the improvements and growth in the voice. The Library of Congress holds many of Barber’s original manuscripts, and they are part of the online Performing Arts Encyclopedia, available to the public at any time for study and consultation.

Sure on this shining night
Samuel Barber: “Sure on this shining night”

One of Barber’s best known songs is “Sure on this shining night,” a setting of the poem written by James Agee and published in the author’s first collection of poems, Permit Me Voyage (1934). The luxurious, lyrical vocal line in the piece, often imitated by the piano accompaniment, resembles vocal works written by masters such as Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann. Since its composition in September of 1938, it has quickly become one of the most programmed recital pieces in the US and Europe.

It is clear that Barber could not stress enough how smooth and flowing this piece should be. He marked the piano line molto legato in the first measure and marked molto espressivo two measures later. In case the performer didn’t get the message, every measure of the treble piano accompaniment included a long phrase marking over it. All of these markings were indicated by Barber in the original manuscript.

Seeing and studying Barber’s original manuscript is an incredible experience. Looking at the song in Barber’s own hand not only confirms to me his intentions regarding phrasing and dynamics, but also gives a connection to him as a composer. Seeing the original manuscript in the Library’s collection instead of just another edition in an American Aria Songbook gives even more meaning to the piece. The feeling of connection to the composer, the music, and the text helps any performer go beyond the notes on the page and reach the next level that all performers strive to find. Even young, budding singers can feel a connection when studying an original manuscript. This kind of connection is what music is all about, and seeing young singers feel this connection is one of the most satisfying feelings as a teacher. Teachers and students should check out the Library’s Performing Arts Encyclopedia or visit the Library in person to pursue these experiences and enhance their musical lives.

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