Despite and Still, Op. 41

(1969)

Despite and Still, Op. 41, published in 1969, is dedicated to Leontyne Price, who was a friend of Barber. The cycle includes poetry by English poet Robert Graves, American poet Theodore Roethke, and Irish poet James Joyce.


In the years following the premiere of his second opera, Antony and Cleopatra (1966), Samuel Barber appeared to have lost much of his creative energy, in part due to the overwhelming disappointment at the poor reception of the opera, and in part due to his failing health, which was aggravated by bouts of depression and alcoholism. Among his few compositions during his last decades was the song cycle Despite and Still, a collection of five songs for high voice and piano. The collection was dedicated to Leontyne Price, the soprano who had earlier debuted Barber’s Hermit Songs (1952-53), and sang the role of Cleopatra in the opera. Price gave the premiere performance of Despite and Still on April 17, 1969 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, with pianist David Garvey, and she would sing the cycle at Barber’s memorial service in 1981.


The five diverse texts included in Despite and Still deal with loneliness, reclusion, reconciliation, religion and solitude--all themes that resonated with Barber during one of the darkest periods of his life. The musical settings differ from the majority of Barber’s earlier songs in that they are both vocally and intellectually demanding, which is perhaps the reason they have been overlooked in this genre of Barber’s oeuvre. Furthermore, Barber strayed from his more usual lyrical style in these songs, which tend to be more chromatic and dissonant than his earlier works, their tonal centers purposely disguised through the use of tritones, whole-tone scale segments, and multiple chord clusters. In an interview with Phillip Ramey, Barber suggested that he consciously chose to incorporate these dissonances to illustrate the darker nature of the texts.


--Stephanie Poxon, Ph.D.


According to Barbara B. Heyman in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians: "The intellectually and vocally challenging late cycle Despite and Still Op.41, written for Price, has profound biographical significance, probing themes of loneliness, lost love and isolation – themes which call for a more dissonant harmonic language characterized by tonal ambiguity, tritones, a frequent use of the complete chromatic, conflicting triads, and whole-tone segments directed towards vivid expression of textual imagery."


Despite and Still is published in both high and low keys.


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