Samuel Barber and the perils of keeping secrets

On any given day, the average person is keeping thirteen secrets. Go ahead and count yours. For me, though I like to cultivate the idea that I’m man shrouded in mystery, thirteen may be a stretch. As it turns out, this may not be such a bad thing. The prevailing science now tells us that secret-keeping may in fact be terrible for your health. I suspect Edgar Allan Poe may have been trying to tell us the same thing nearly 200 years ago when he wrote the story about hiding a dismembered dead body underneath the floor boards, but now I guess it’s now official. According to my extensive (Google) research, keeping too many things under your hat can lead to some rather nasty stuff, including high blood pressure, gastrointestinal issues, slowed metabolism and osteoporosis. And more wrinkles. Eek.


I guess the best thing to do then, is to fess up. If you need some inspiration for the required courage, consider the great American composer, Samuel Barber. When he was just nine years old, Barber was experiencing some angst about something he needed to get off his chest. He wrote, “Dear Mother: I have written this to tell you my worrying secret. Now don’t cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault…To begin with, I was not meant to be an athlete. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure. I’ll ask you one more thing—don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football—Please—Sometimes I’ve been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very).”


The young Barber turned out to be quite right. He was meant to be a composer, and a great one at that. Even now, some forty years after his death, he remains one of the most celebrated American composers.


It’s hard to pinpoint a reason, but maybe the secret to his early and persistent success is the the singularly direct emotional appeal of his music. His best known work is his heart-wrenching Adagio for Strings, written when he was just 28. This compact masterwork has become part of our popular cultural fabric; it resonates with listeners from every walk of life. It’s soaring lyricism expresses deeply felt things that are in all of us, connecting each us to our fellow listeners by appealing to what we unconsciously understand as our shared human condition. The great conductor Arturo Toscanini called it “semplice e bella”—simple and beautiful.


Other secrets would haunt Samuel Barber. He was a gay man living in a time in which it was considerably more difficult to be gay. He battled alcoholism and depression. Yet in his music, there in an undeniable emotional honesty through which he managed to create works of astonishing beauty.


I’m not advocating that you tell me all your secrets. Maybe just consider how many of them you really need to keep to yourself. Apparently your skin will thank you.