Barber’s “The School for Scandal” Overture
Notes by TŌN trombonist Stephen Whimple
Serving as the initial spark in Samuel Barber’s long and illustrious career as his first large orchestral work, The School of Scandal Overture exists as an invigorating, exciting, and lush work that establishes a compositional consistency that would last a lifetime. While studying at the newly formed Curtis Institute of Music at a young age, Barber would win two separate Joseph H. Bearns Prizes in Music, administered by Columbia University. The first in 1929, for his Violin Sonata, and the second in 1933, for this overture.
Barber was known to be a life-long lover of literature, with this overture being a prime example. Rather than serving as the opening of a larger staged work, this overture serves as a musical encapsulation of the 1777 play The School of Scandal, written by Richard Sheridan. The play features several plot lines that begin separately but slowly converge on one another. An uncle deciding whom to give his fortune to (I loved Succession), two nephews competing for a woman’s love, and two women competing for one of the nephew’s attention. There is gossip, drama, disguises, and many other shenanigans—what more could an 18th century audience need?
As mentioned above, this play has drama and high stakes, but at its core, it is very playful and comedic. Most of the music from this overture reflects that. At the beginning, you’ll hear a fanfare and high-energy introduction that brings us to an equally exciting exposition and theme. What follows thematically establishes different characters and plot lines. There are slower themes that emphasize the romance between characters, but also many moments utilized by instrumentation and melody that represent the play’s antagonist, Lady Scandal (a very nuanced name). This overture oscillates between these different ideas and themes in a programmatic way, following the plot of the play to a joyous and celebratory ending that befits an operatic comedy.