Capricorn Concerto

Samuel Barber

Capricorn Concerto

Op. 21

About this work

Samuel Barber's Capricorn Concerto (1944) is named after the house in Mount Kisco, NY, where the composer lived with his partner and collaborator Gian-Carlo Menotti from 1943 to 1974. The work's instrumental forces -- flute, oboe, and trumpet in soloistic roles, accompanied by string orchestra -- suggest a kinship with the Baroque concerto grosso. However, the connection is deceptive; instead of interacting with the orchestra in the same musical realm, as leading instruments do in the concerto grosso, the soloists here seem to exist on an altogether different emotional plane from that of the orchestra, navigating from an extroverted, Bernstein-like breeziness into a meditative world of their own. There is no difficulty in recognizing the nervous energy of the dancing polyrhythms and jazzy syncopations as distinctly American, while the more lyrical passages at once recall the noble pathos of the composer's string quartets. The flute is the prima donna of the ensemble, assuming a place of prominence with both ardent songs and fluid trills, while the oboe takes on a more expressive, calming role. In the first movement, the trumpet is treated almost like another woodwind instrument; its brassier moments are reserved for later. The movement is in three sections: a short introduction for the strings is followed by a supple melody played by each of the solo instruments in turn, leading to a driving Allegro. The thematic material of the entire movement is derived, in various permutations, from the introduction. The second movement, Allegretto, is a demure scherzo with new thematic material. The trumpet plays muted and staccato throughout; here, the soloists unite as a concertato, lightly accompanied by the strings. What follows is a short, poetic interlude and an Allegro con brio finale that does not seem to posses a true "brio" quality. The carnival spirit of the trumpet's opening invitation is swiftly followed by an intense episodic development of earlier themes. Some fans of Barber's other music find this work a bit on the dry side. But it is imaginative, entertaining, and very skillfully composed music.