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About this Piece

Composed: 1935

Length: 19 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum and cymbals), harp, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 26, 1953,
John Barnett conducting

Songs were the earliest compositions of Barber - himself a fine singer - and lyricism remained an integral feature of his writing in every medium. Success came to him early, and it included the prize that allowed him to study at the American Academy in Rome (1935-37), where he wrote his Symphony No. 1. Bernardino Molinari conducted the premiere in Rome in December of 1936. It was another immediate hit for Barber. Artur Rodzinski led the Cleveland Orchestra in the U.S. premiere in January 1937, and he conducted it again that summer as the first American symphonic work ever performed at the Salzburg Festival.

Barber revised this Symphony in 1942, while working on his Second Symphony as a commission from the Army Air Corps, in which he was serving. Bruno Walter and the Philadelphia Orchestra gave the first performance of the revised First Symphony in February 1944.

This work synthesizes the four traditional movements of the classical symphony into a single movement. The first of these interior "movements" presents three themes which Barber develops throughout the piece. For all of his putative conservatism, Barber is quite capable of playing sophisticated metrical and rhythmic games that disguise thematic reappearances; the scampering music of the "scherzo" (about seven minutes in) and the repeated bass phrase underlying the finale are both variations of the opening flourish.

On the other hand, Barber also makes some of these restatements quite apparent, color-coding them with evocative orchestration. The arching second theme initially appears in the English horn and violas over a rocking accompaniment in the harp and cellos; when it ushers in the Andante tranquillo "slow movement," it does so as an oboe solo over rocking muted strings.

The finale brings all three themes together, and closes the Symphony with clear references to its beginning. Rhetorically and musically, the coda also has much in common with the close of Francesca da Rimini. Indeed, the two works share much: rounded form, a rapturously developed lyrical center, intense drama, and vivid orchestration.

-- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.