"I was meant to be a composer, and will be I'm sure... Don't ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football. Please."
When nine-year-old Samuel Barber wrote these words to his worried mother, he had already been composing music for three years. Refusing to take up the family business and study medicine, Barber's regular studies were cut short to begin a full-time study of music at age 16. One of the most honored of all American composers, Barber contributed to almost every traditional genre of music including symphony, concerto, chamber music, art song, ballet, and opera, garnering two Pulitzer Prizes and a host of other awards for his work.
Despite his predilection for tonal, lyrical music in the Romantic vein, Barber was not immune to incorporating elements of modernism into his work, bringing increased dissonance and serial techniques to his music in the 1940s, paticularly Medea (1946), his ballet for Martha Graham, and the Piano Sonata of 1949. Summer Music contains shades of modernism, but is comprised of, above all, lyrical melodies.
The work was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Detroit for the first chair players of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, who gave its premiere. Barber had composed it, however, with the players of the New York Wind Quintet in mind, utilizing their "favorite effects." The New York ensemble quickly took up the piece and played it several times both in the United States and South America.
The introduction, marked "slow and indolent," evokes a bluesy atmosphere, specifically of the Gershwin variety, perhaps a reference to his Summertime. One also catches quick glimpses of the introduction to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in the occasional harsh, but playful, dissonance. After the oboe spins a long, gentle theme, a more agitated section ensues in which the individual instruments chatter among themselves in ascending solo flourishes. The overall form is palindromic, the same backwards as forwards, with the bluesy opening returning at the quintet's close, mixed with short echoes of previous sections.
— Christopher Anderson-Bazzoli is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Publications Assistant.