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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 15, No. 8 May 2010

History in the Making: Barber’s Lost Piece Receives World ‘Re’-Premiere

by Crystal Chan / May 1, 2010

Flash version here.

It’s the perfect celebration of Samuel Barber’s 100th birthday: this May, pianist Lara Downes and violinist Rachel Barton Pine bring one of his lost works to life at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival with a performance of the salvaged third movement of the Sonata in F Minor.

The sonatahas not been performed in 82 years. Barber wrote the piece when he was just an 18-year-old Curtis Institute student and performed it at a small 1928 school recital. As the first major recognition he received, the Joseph H. Bearns Prize that Columbia University awarded the composition the following year was seminal in the composer’s emerging career. However, the piece then completely left the radar. The music, scholars sadly assumed, had been destroyed or lost forever.

Fast forward to 2006: a year after Tom Bostelle passed away, a holograph copy was discovered in his estate. Bostelle was a Westchester artist; it is presumed he boarded in the Barber home as a young man. The copy contained the third movement. Barber biographer Barbara Heyman became aware of the find through her research, and one day invited her friend Downes over to her apartment. Nonchalantly, Heyman put a copy on her piano and asked Downes: “Why don’t you sight read this?” Pretty soon, Downes—a Barber specialist—realized the markedly small and distinguished hand of the composer was none other than Barber’s himself.

The sonata, which is unpublished and remains unavailable to the public, is around eight minutes long in performance and most comparable in style to Barber’s Cello Sonata, Opus 6 (which will be performed at the same concert as the discovered work). They possess a similar style of writing, with a very florid piano part and a melodic violin part. 

“There are big soaring lines and an audacious use of stretchy intervals,” explained Downes. “There’s quite a lot written very high for the violin. And of course the piano part is dense and—um—energetic! There is a lot of that interesting syncopation in the piano part, too. The movement is marked “Allegro Agitato” but it’s in 9/8 and has lots going on; I think it’s more successful when the tempo is pretty free and not rushed: again, like with the Cello Sonata.”

There is such a buzz around the concert that international media such as the New York Times are asking for stories. Pine is elated: “We’re going to introduce it to the world and I’m just so honoured and thrilled that I get to be the one to do so because that’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said.

“Performance Today,” the most listened to classical music radio show in the U.S., will be broadcasting the performance.

“It is a great honour for us at the Montreal Chamber Festival to essentially be giving what amounts to a world premiere,” explained Montreal Chamber Music Festival Founder and Artistic Director Denis Brott.

(c) La Scena Musicale