Detail from [Design drawing for stained glass window for Grace Episcopal Church in Newport News, Virginia. A temptation window, "Man Does Not Live By Bread Alone" showing informal Christ with Satan on mid grid], 1960. Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress.
from Despite and Still, op. 41, 1968
By Samuel Barber, 1910-1981
In the years following the disastrous premiere of his second opera, Antony and Cleopatra (1966), Samuel Barber appeared to have lost much of his creative energy, in part to the overwhelming disappointment of the poor reception of his opera, and in part to his failing health, which was aggravated by bouts of depression and alcoholism. Among the few compositions he penned during his last decades were his song cycle Despite and Still, a collection of five songs for soprano solo and piano. The collection was dedicated to Leontyne Price, the soprano who had earlier debuted Barber's Hermit Songs (1952-53) as well as the title role in Antony and Cleopatra. Price, who delivered the premiere performance of Despite and Still on 27 April 1969 in New York with pianist David Garvey at Avery Fisher Hall, would later sing the cycle at Barber's memorial service in 1981.
The five diverse texts included in Despite and Still deal with loneliness, reclusion, reconciliation, religion and solitude -- all themes that resonated with Barber during one of the darkest periods of his life. As far as the musical settings are concerned, they differ from the majority of Barber's earlier songs in that they are both vocally and intellectually demanding, which is perhaps the reason they have been overlooked in this genre of Barber's oeuvre. Furthermore, Barber strayed from his more usual lyrical style in these songs, which tend to be more chromatic and dissonant than his earlier works, their tonal centers purposely disguised through the use of tritones, whole tone scale segments, and multiple chord clusters. In an interview with Phillip Ramey, Barber suggested that he did indeed consciously choose to incorporate these dissonances to illustrate the darker nature of the texts.
Barber set three poems by Robert Graves in Despite and Still, including the third song, "In the Wilderness." Graves's poem, written in 1915, deals with the suffering of Jesus. While the opening of "In the Wilderness" is reminiscent of a lullaby, the middle section is harsh, featuring an aggressive accompaniment containing open fifths pitted against a melodic line containing tritones. The lullaby motive returns at the song's conclusion, as a release from the dissonance. The fourth song of the collection, "Solitary Hotel," is based on a passage from James Joyce's Ulysses. Throughout his career, Barber often sought Joyce's prose as a source of inspiration, as demonstrated in his collection of Three Songs, op. 10 (1935-36) and Nuvoletta (1947), a series of extractions from Finnegans Wake, among other works. In "Solitary Hotel," Barber sets a "love-at-first-sight" encounter by juxtaposing a punctuated melodic line against the passionate tango-like accompaniment.