Barber and Picasso

Barber and Picasso

I enjoy reading about twentieth-century musicians, artists, and writers and about the times in which they lived and worked. Recently I read a couple of fine books about two of them.  

I had always been aware of Samuel Barber, but I wouldn’t have put him on a short list of the greatest American composers, a list that, for me, really contained just three names: Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, and Charles Ives. (Songwriters and lyricists warrant their own list, as do Broadway and film composers.) 

After reading Samuel Barber: His Life and Legacy, by Howard Pollack, I would now add Barber to the list. 

This big fat book is well-written but not beautifully done in the way you’d describe, for example, a Robert Caro biography. However, it was exhaustively researched, and the sheer quality and quantity of information about this fascinating man and his times made it a satisfying read. 

Barber lived in an era when composers worldwide, including the United States, confused innovation with quality. Melody? Harmony? Those had been done. Atonal music was new and therefore better. A generation of concertgoers was subjected to works that, in truth, had been written for a handful of colleagues and academics. 

Barber, composing at that same time, swam against the current. Aside from the occasional experiment, he wrote melodic, tonal music, such as his most famous work, Adagio for Strings, and a personal favorite of mine, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for voice and orchestra, with luminous text by James Agee. 

I look forward to rediscovering the music of one of our greatest composers.

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These days, Pablo Picasso is considered a giant, probably the giant, of modern art. But there was a time not so long ago when most Americans didn’t know his name, let alone his work. 

Then the Museum of Modern Art in New York put on a retrospective called “Picasso: Forty Years of His Art.” That landmark show of 1939 included Picasso’s monumental painting, Guernica, one of the most stunning and effective anti-war statements ever made by an artist, along with dozens of other masterpieces. 

Then, in an accident of history, World War II intervened, and the exhibition was stranded in the United States. Over the duration of the war, MOMA used the opportunity to send it to museums across the country, from Boston to San Francisco, Chicago to New Orleans. By the time the war ended, Picasso was famous, and modern art had found a home. 

Picasso’s War: How Modern Art Came to America, by Hugh Eakin, traces that history and much more. It’s really the story of modern art and art collecting in the United States, with particular attention to MOMA and its fascinating first director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., as well as John Quinn, a lawyer who amassed a huge Picasso collection years before the museum even existed. 

I’ve always relished learning about art and artists, but until reading this book I had never given much thought to the people who love and collect their work, saving it for the rest of us to enjoy.

Read an excerpt from Picasso’s War


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