Samuel Barber: Dover Beach

Program Note

Samuel Barber’s musical talent was precocious and multifaceted – so much so that when, at age 14, Barber went off to study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, he focused in not one but three disciplines: piano, composition, and voice. It was during his years at Curtis that Barber composed Dover Beach, which he also premiered and recorded as baritone. In Barber’s words, looking back on the work in 1979: “Dover Beach is a very difficult piece because nobody is boss, so to speak – not the singer or the string quartet. It’s chamber music.” 
Barber’s choice to set Matthew Arnold’s dark poem was ambitious – he considered it “one of the few Victorian poems which continue to hold their stature.” The result of Barber’s work impressed Ralph Vaughan Williams, who heard the piece when lecturing at Bryn Mawr College in 1932. Barber recalls the older composer lauding: “I tried several times to set ‘Dover Beach’, but you really got it!”