Hermit Songs

“Hermit Songs” is a cycle of ten songs for voice and piano by Samuel Barber. Written in 1953 on a grant from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, it takes as its basis a collection of anonymous poems written by Irish monks and scholars from the 8th to the 13th centuries. The Hermit Songs received their premiere in 1953 at the Library of Congress, with soprano Leontyne Price and Barber himself as pianist.
barber price
The ten songs of the cycle and the respective translators of each poem are as follows:
• “At St Patrick’s Purgatory” (translated by Seán Ó Faoláin)
• “Church Bell at Night” (translated by Howard Mumford Jones)
• “St Ita’s Vision” (translated by Chester Kallman)
• “The Heavenly Banquet” (translated by Seán Ó Faoláin)
• “The Crucifixion” (translated by Howard Mumford Jones)
• “Sea Snatch” (translated by Kenneth Jackson)
• “Promiscuity” (translated by Kenneth Jackson)
• “The Monk and his Cat” (translated by W.H. Auden)
• “The Praises of God” (translated by W.H. Auden)
• “The Desire for Hermitage” (translated by Seán Ó Faoláin)

“The Heavenly Banquet” text is attributed to St. Brigid according to Samuel Barber’s score, who shares the patronage of Ireland with St. Patrick. She is known to practicing Catholics also as the patron saint of beer.
“[These songs] are small poems, thoughts or observations, some very short, and speak in straightforward, witty, and often surprisingly modern terms of the simple life they led – close to nature, their animals and to God. Some are literal translations and others, were translated (where existing translations seemed inadequate.) Robin Flower has written in The Irish Tradition: “It was not only that these scribes and anchorites lived by the destiny of their dedication in an environment of wood and sea; it was because they brought into that environment an eye washed miraculously clear by a continual spiritual exercise that they had that strange vision of natural things in an almost unnatural purity.”
hermit songs
This cycle of ten songs was commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation and completed during 1952 and 1953. The texts are anonymous writings from Irish monastic sources of the eighth through the thirteenth centuries — most notably marginalia of hand-copied manuscripts — that embrace every possible sentiment, from the devout to the obscene. Barber responded with sympathetic settings that greatly amplify the humor, wisdom, and piety of the various texts. Leontyne Price gave the first performance of the Hermit Songs, with the composer at the piano, in Washington, D.C., October 30, 1953.
The first song, At Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, is a prayer to God asking for protection on an upcoming voyage. The speaker also asks for forgiveness for his sins. This first song is musically similar to the other songs of the cycle. Occurrences in this song such as mixed meter, a lack of time signature, and the extraordinary presence of open fourths and fifths continue throughout Hermit Songs. The second song, Church Bell at Night is a short, calm song, claiming that the company of a bell is better than that of a “light and foolish woman.” The third song is a beautiful recitative and aria titled St. Ita’s Vision. The aria section is a beautiful lullaby sung to the baby Jesus. The Heavenly Banquet is the title of the fourth song. It is festive and describes the speaker’s wish to feed and entertain biblical figures. The fifth song of the cycle, The Crucifixion, is a tender lament highlighted by dissonance. Barber does well in bringing out the suffering entailed by the speaker. Sea-Snatch, the sixth song, is frantic and describes a ship lost to a storm at sea. The seventh song, Promiscuity, is short and mischievous. The next song, The Monk and his Cat, has a relaxed mood and compares the daily lives, eyes, and joys of the two figures in the title. The Praises of God is the ninth song. This song points to the foolishness of those who do not enjoy singing. The final song, titled The Desire for Hermitage, is calm, yet dissonant, and contemplates hermitage and death. Barber had an interest in the idea of reclusion and hermitage throughout his career.
pangurban 1
“Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs, “based on comments written on the margins of medieval manuscripts by Irish monks, are infused with a modal harmonic language of great stylistic integrity; they led [William] Schuman to hail Barber as an unmatched art-song composer.””
price hermit
The songs are available on-line:

At St. Patrick’s Purgatory, Church Bell at Night, St. Ita’s Vision, The Heavenly Banquet, The Crucifixion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2KfsulEJ9Y
The Crucifixion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AlxuB3HfAnI
The Heavenly Banquet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eer-eM-sg9M&list=PL5A9E96AF1E72D7C8 – and as sung by Leontyne Price: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eer-eM-sg9M&list=PL5A9E96AF1E72D7C8
The Monk and His Cat (Leontyne Price): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EI8Fwgifeus
The Desire for Hermitage (Leontyne Price): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vAsBNUjiI5c
Sea Snatch (Leontyne Price): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9D1KAL_qa8
The Praises of God (Leontyne Price): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHIcFpOq4vw
“Samuel Osmond Barber II (March 9, 1910 – January 23, 1981) was an American composer of orchestral, opera, choral, and piano music. He is one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century: music critic Donal Henahan stated that “Probably no other American composer has ever enjoyed such early, such persistent and such long-lasting acclaim.”[1] His Adagio for Strings (1936) has earned a permanent place in the concert repertory of orchestras. He was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music, for his opera Vanessa (1956–57) and his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1962). Also widely performed is his Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947), a work for soprano and orchestra, which sets a prose text by James Agee. Unusual among contemporary composers, nearly all of his compositions have been recorded.”

See also http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/52847/Samuel-Barber
And http://www.classicalarchives.com/composer/2130.html


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