[Embankment, showing bay in rainstorm], by Bertha Boynton Lum, 1914 or 1915. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
from Three Songs, op. 10, 1935-36
By Samuel Barber, 1910-1981
In 1935, Samuel Barber was awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome, granting him a two-year period of study at the American Academy in Rome. While at the Academy, Barber composed several new songs, choosing poems from James Joyce's Chamber Music (1907) as the texts for his settings. Of these songs composed, "Rain Has Fallen," "Sleep Now," and "I Hear an Army," were published collectively as Three Songs, op. 10, by G. Schirmer in 1939. The songs are related thematically, as each describes a love affair, as well as musically, with the first and last songs set in the key of C minor (A minor in the low voice edition), and the middle song residing a minor third lower. The first two songs were dedicated, respectively, to Barber's friends Dario Cecchi and his sister Susanna, both of whom shared the composer's appreciation of Joyce's poetry.
Barber possessed an uncanny ability in choosing intelligent texts and was equally sensitive in setting the music to suit the poetry. He appreciated the rhythmic flow of the words and would often shift meters in his musical settings to accommodate the natural rhythm of the text. This is indeed the case in each of the songs in the op. 10 collection. Furthermore, each of the Three Songs also displays Barber's penchant for embodying the meaning of the text in the piano accompaniment. For example, the accompaniment of the first song in the collection, "Rain Has Fallen," is laden with arpeggios, undoubtedly intended to mimic the patter of rain. And in the finale of the collection, "I Hear an Army," Barber uses an aggressive, galloping accompaniment to mirror Joyce's poetic comparison of the approach of an army (and its thunderous horses) with that of the anger, bitterness, and betrayal experienced after the dissolution of a relationship.
The first two songs of the collection received their premiere in Rome at the Villa Aurelia at the American Academy on 22 April 1936, with Barber accompanying himself at the piano. The third song was heard nearly a year later, on 7 March 1937, at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia with mezzo-soprano Rose Bampton accompanied by the composer. "I Hear an Army" was also sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b.1925) in New York's Alice Tully Hall on 30 April 1974, on the same program in which the famed German bass-baritone also premiered Barber's Three Songs, op. 45.