Samuel Barber (1910 – 1981)

Samuel Barber was one of the most popular American composers of the 20th Century. He was born in Pennsylvania into a musical family. His mother was a pianist and his aunt sang with the Metropolitan Opera. The voice and the piano would be the focus of his extraordinary musical gifts. He knew that he would be a composer from an early age and entered the famed Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia at the age of 14, where he studied voice, piano, and composition. He also met fellow student and composer Gian Carlo Menotti there, who was to become his lifelong friend and companion.

One of Barber’s earliest successes was the Adagio for Strings, which was an orchestral arrangement of the second movement of his String Quartet. The work was premiered by Arturo Toscanini, (one of the few American works ever programmed by the famed conductor), and became a popular and critical hit. Many composers have subsequently arranged it for other instrumental combinations, ranging from solo organ to saxophone quartet. Barber himself did a choral arrangement of the piece, setting it to the Latin text Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) from the mass. The piece has become associated with mourning since the time of its broadcast announcing the death of President Franklin Roosevelt. It has been played at funerals of noted celebrities and political figures since then, (such as Albert Einstein, Princess Grace, and in honor of the victims of the 9/11 attacks). It has also been featured in numerous films and television shows, ranging from The Elephant Man and Platoon to The Simpsons and South Park. It has also been popular with electronic musicians and remix artists. (There is a notable electronic recording of the work by William Orbit.) Commenting on its simple melodic construction, yet deep emotional impact, music critic Olin Downes remarked:

“We have here honest music, by an honest musician, not striving for pretentious effect, not behaving as a writer would who, having a clear, short, popular word handy for his purpose, got the dictionary and fished out a long one.”

Barber composed a variety of orchestral, vocal, and piano works, as well as some pieces of chamber music, such as the Summer Music for woodwind quintet. He even wrote a march (the Commando March) for the Army band, which he served in during World War II. He established close friendships with many singers and wrote dozens of songs for them, such as Eleanor Steber, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Pierre Bernac, and Leontyne Price, who premiered his Hermit Songs, with Barber at the piano. She also recorded his orchestral song cycle, Knoxville Summer of 1915. Eleanor Steber sang the title role in the premiere of his opera, Vanessa, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1958. (Menotti wrote the libretto for it.) Fischer-Dieskau sang Barber’s Dover Beach, (based on the Matthew Arnold poem) for a recording with the Juilliard String Quartet. (Barber sang the baritone part himself in the first recording of the piece.)

Another important friendship was with the pianist John Browning, who has recorded all of Barber’s piano music and gave the premiere of Barber’s Piano Concerto, which won Barber his second Pulitzer Prize in 1963. In addition to the piano concerto, Barber also wrote concertos for the violin, cello, and an ensemble of flute, oboe, and trumpet (the Capricorn Concerto).

Barber was commissioned to write an opera to celebrate the new Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center in 1966. He composed his last opera, Antony and Cleopatra for it, with Franco Zefferelli directing. Although it contains some of his best music, the production suffered from many technical problems and a poor libretto and was a failure at its premiere. This sent Barber into a deep and lasting depression and his compositional output was much less afterwards. Menotti later revised some of the text and conducted a recording of the work at his Spoleto Festival, which enjoyed better success. Barber’s last work was a Canzonetta for oboe and strings, part of a planned Oboe Concerto (one of his favorite instruments). He died from cancer in New York in 1981 at the age of 70. Barber’s simple, heartfelt Ne0-Romantic style was often out of step with the experimental music of the Post-War period, but was well-received by musicians and audiences at the time and remains popular now.

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Reading:

Barbara B. Heyman. Samuel Barber: The Composer And His Music.