Samuel Barber: Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance

On Wednesday, October 1st, the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra presented Samuel Barber’s “Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance,” conducted by Dr. William LaRue Jones. The piece was first premiered in 1946 at the Second Annual Festival for Contemporary Music. In collaboration with choreographer Martha Graham, Barber composed the score for Medea to accompany the ballet Cave of the Heart. This programmatic piece was a vivid depiction of Euripides’ story of Medea and Jason. Medea has been deserted by Jason, and in a jealous rage, murders his new princess with a poisoned crown.

Barber’s compositional style was always marked by vocally expressive lyricism, even when he wrote in other genres. He wrote in almost every genres, including solo instrumental pieces in his and opera. He was strongly influenced by mentors who upheld the forms of the 19th century, which Barber used extensively. In works after 1940, Barber experimented with new modernist techniques, including serialism and atonal sonorities. However, these techniques were always used in a way that did not compromise the melodic line and sense of tonality. In Medea, this is very obvious; although the dissonant textures and driving rhythms sound very modern, a strong sense of melody is also preserved, allowing the music to be accessible and enjoyable for the average listener.  His use of dissonance, increased chromaticism, and syncopated rhythms in Medea also show the influence of Stravinsky (“Samuel Barber,” by Barber Heyman).

I thought the music very closely matched the story which it represented. Instruments present different themes, each of which sound ominous and seem to predict something much darker to come. The piece opens with a xylophone solo. I noticed the prominence of the harp and sparse texture in the opening, which highlights the eerie solo. A mournful violin duet rises from the texture, echoed by the flute and oboe. These themes continue to transform, again punctuated by the xylophone solo. The tempo changes after the lyrical opening to rising brass figures, opening to a much more lush and full orchestral sound. New themes are presented and build, sounding more and more ominous, with more frequent dissonances. The music changes tempo again, tossing themes between instruments, which now move forward with more intensity. This section is accompanied by a relentless ostinato passage in the piano, which slightly transforms in rhythm as it repeats between different instruments. As stated in the program note, “agitated, wildly driving rhythms dominate the close of the work, as Medea moves closer to her ultimate goal.”

I think understanding the story makes the piece more approachable for listeners. Without the program, the piece is very interesting with new and different sonorities, but the addition of the program makes the dissonance and agitated rhythmic textures more meaningful, bringing the story to life. It is easy for the listener to imagine the plot as the piece grows in intensity and fury with each subsequent section, building to the exciting climax.  I thought the performers didn’t back away from any of the challenges the piece presented. The violent string and rhythmic brass figures were very aggressive and musically satisfying.

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One response to “Samuel Barber: Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance

  1. Great insight into this piece! It is also interesting to note that a year after the ballet premiered, Barber expanded the music for full orchestra in the form of a seven movement suite, called Medea, Op. 23. Five years later, he decided to revisit the music and focus more on Medea, calling it Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. Shortly before his death, he altered the title to be Medea’s Dance of Vengeance. I think this was a mistake. The “mournful violin duet” and the all the solos/duets/trios in the winds are a prime example of the meditation of Medea. She is mourning the loss of Jason to another woman. The strings then take us away with a wistful melody that almost provides hope for her recovery. The texture then entirely changes with the entrance of the clarinet, who seems to start the dance in devising a plan. Several other slower sections also appear that either seem to question the plan or reflect on what she has done.

    At the end of the score, Barber includes direct lines from Euripides’ play, which seem to serve as program notes for this tone poem:

    “Look, my soft eyes have suddenly filled with tears:
    O children, how ready to cry I am, how full of foreboding!
    Jason wrongs me, though I have never injured him.
    He has taken a wife to his house, supplanting me …
    Now I am in the full force of the storm of hate.
    I will make dead bodies of three of my enemies—
    Father, the girl and my husband!
    Come, Medea, whose father was noble,
    Whose grandfather God of the sun,
    Go forward to the dreadful act.”

    As the story proceeds and Madea gets crazier with envy or hatred, the the texture thickens and the music becomes more complex. It it also focuses more on rhythmic activity, the dance, as the music unfolds. The harmonies become more dissonant. Later in the piece, it is filled with constant, fast meter changes as well, making the job of the performer more challenging. Along with that, Barber wrote at least one articulated chord every measure in the winds. However, the chord constantly falls on a different part of the measure. This is very destabilizing for both the performers and audience members. The end of the piece also has many time changes while increasing in speed. Even with a conductor, it can be difficult for the entire ensemble to accelerate, change time signatures, and even the hypermeter.

    With the long, lyrical lines and the ever-changing meter and rhythms, Barber successfully portrayed Medea’s character, all the while maintaining the interest of the audience.

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