The high bassoon and open harmonies that begin Barber’s only wind quintet evoke the shimmering heat of a still summer’s day. The pattern of a falling semitone, first heard as the horn’s languid accompaniment to the bassoon’s pensive melody, links a series of scenes illustrating summer in Knoxville where Barber wandered as a boy.
The opening mood of pleasant drowsiness is interrupted by what are often interpreted as short programmatic episodes: the glittering of sunlight, birdcalls, the hooting of an owl, and clarinet interjections representing Barber’s aunt scolding him for wandering away during summers as a boy.
Born in 1910, Barber was one of the few American composers able to make a living from writing classical music. He began writing at the age of 7, and his reputation was firmly established when a movement from an early string quartet was adapted for string orchestra and performed by the NBC Symphony as the now famous Adagio for Strings. His accolades include two Pulitzer Prizes, a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, the American Prix de Rome and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Despite this acclaim, Barber was often criticised by his contemporaries for his apparent lack of style, and his refusal to embrace the prevailing avant-garde techniques. Instead, his music was often unashamedly romantic. And in this piece, the lush, romantic harmonies accompany writing for winds is reminiscent of the French tradition.
“It is said that I have no style at all, but that doesn’t matter” Barber said. “I just go on doing, as they say, my thing. I believe this takes a certain courage”.