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Documentary sheds new light on fascinating West Chester composer Samuel Barber

Lionized when alive, marginalized after his death in 1981, Samuel Barber has entered a continual state of reemergence: The gentlemanly, West Chester-born composer keeps revealing himself in new ways that were somehow obscured even in the more acclaimed years of  his lifetime.

In the new documentary film Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty (available on Amazon and Vimeo), one realizes how and why Barber's music has gradually insinuated itself into the very core of the classical music world with a durability that now seems unmatched by any of his contemporaries, with the possible exception of Leonard Bernstein.

With great visual polish, documentarian H. Paul Moon brings together an extremely impressive array of documents, archival footage, interviews with Barber experts, and taped oral histories. Bernstein, Marin Alsop, Thomas Hampson, Leonard Slatkin, and Leontyne Price are all there. Most significant is Gian Carlo Menotti, the composer who was Barber's longtime companion and who is heard describing the experience of being at Barber's deathbed.

Traditionally, Barber is described as lyrical and romantic. In Moon's (mostly self-financed) film, words like integrity and solidity emerge more strongly.

"He wasn't a conservative as much as he was a conservator," says Barbara Heyman, the Barber biographer and scholar who rightly dominates the film with deeply considered insights that could not be more necessary: Though Barber was the most open-hearted composer of his time, he was outwardly reserved, speaking with a patrician Park Avenue accent and maintaining a certain distance with his dry wit. Somewhere around age 70, when asked why he was giving up composing, he replied that he wanted to take up something interesting, "like deep-sea diving."

He followed in the footsteps of past composers by working in established forms but mostly wrote one piece of each kind, including concertos for notable solo instruments (piano, violin, and cello), a piano sonata, and a string quartet containing his famous Adagio for Strings.

Always liked but never fashionable, Barber was discussed as a guilty pleasure, even a cul-de-sac, amid the raging avant-garde of the 1960s. He is reputed to have walked out on a composer summit when Aaron Copland declared the recklessly innovative Charles Ives to be the Great American Composer. Now, Copland's folk-inspired pieces feel self-consciously quaint; Ives seems chaotic and gimmicky. Is Barber, in fact, the true Great American Composer?

Famous musicians (including Bernstein) have long performed his music. And, as the great Price had done, Renee Fleming recently recorded  his Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a nostalgic evocation based on Barber's genteel upbringing in post-Victorian West Chester, on the Decca label disc Distant Light.  Others of lesser visibility have also taken Barber to heart, which tells you his ascendance is not a matter of external promotion from recording labels and publishers. It's welling up from within.

The film shows that Barber was inescapably himself from the beginning. "Please don't make me play football," he pleaded in a letter to his mother declaring his intention to be a composer.  Even in some of his childhood photos, the eyes tell you that this was someone who had soulful music within him. Barber's early Dover Beach is discussed as one of his best works. He seems not to have found his compositional voice: It was always there, and needed only to be cultivated and enriched.

What follows in the film is a mostly chronological examination of his major pieces, which could be explicitly autobiographical as well as a clear reflection on what his life was like at the time. The section on Knoxville -- soprano Price is quoted as saying you can hear the streetcars and smell the strawberries -- is particularly lush with footage of Barber's West Chester, plus an interview with one of the surviving neighbors.

With particular sensitivity and intelligence, Moon explores the nature of the Barber-Menotti relationship. They met as Curtis Institute of Music students, traveled widely together, and eventually set up housekeeping at Capricorn, a house north of New York that became famous for their ultra-brainy parties but that had studios for each of the composers at opposite ends of the building so they would not disturb each other. Barber is described as not particularly identifying with gay culture (when the outrageous gay icon Tallulah Bankhead showed up at their parties, he reportedly locked himself in the bathroom), but he probably felt more married in his relationship than did Menotti.

They strayed from each other. Ultimately the film concludes that we'll never really know what ruptured their relationship. There had to have been professional jealousy. Menotti had great popular success with works such as his opera written for television Amahl and the Night Visitors. But Barber had concert-hall success that eluded Menotti.

In any case, Menotti asked that their home be sold in 1970; he had moved on, though the two remained close. When Barber's Antony and Cleopatra flopped at the Metropolitan Opera in 1966, Menotti helped with revisions that got the piece back on stage, although he did the opera no favors in the long run.

Moon brushes by Barber's late-in-life alcoholism, which is documented in other places and explains why the scars from the failure of Antony and Cleopatra and the breakup with Menotti were so slow to heal and made later years less productive.

Though Moon sometimes approaches his topics like an airplane circling the airport, his ability to present so much visual evidence is astounding. The difficulties and expense of clearing performances from major symphony orchestras can bedevil a documentarian. So you don't see the Berlin Philharmonic here. But I'm impressed with how much is here.

Also, to Moon's great credit, he allows for multiple interpretations of Barber's music. The Adagio for Strings, for one, became a post-9/11 lament, though in an archival tape, composer Virgil Thomson pipes in to say that he hears it as a love scene. To me, it sounds like solemn marriage vows.

The film's main service to Barber is taking you beyond the music's attractive surfaces. Performances by singers such as William Sharp are important to observe, not just because they're good, but because rehearsal scenes help break down the elements of pieces that are so solidly built that they sometimes only imply the depths within. But those depths are there. I suspect that a lifetime of listening  isn't enough to find them all.