Barber, Samuel

Period: Early 20th Century

Born: Wednesday, March 9, 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania (USA)

Died: Friday, January 23, 1981 in New York, New York (USA)

Nation of Origin: United States

Major Works:

Adagio for Strings, op. 11 (1937)
Scene for Soprano and Orchestra
Knoxville: Summer of 1915

Other Information:

Samuel Barber was born on 9 March 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He already played piano at age 6, and wrote his first piece at age 7. When he was 10 years old he tried to write an opera, but never finished it. At 14 he began his studies at Curtis Institute. There he studied composition (1926-31), piano (1926-31) and singing (1926-30). Barber had a beautiful baritone voice and, for some time, he wanted to be singer. During his studies at Curtis Institute, Barber wrote his first piece: Serenade for strings, op. 1 (1928 - in 1944 he arranged this piece for string orchestra). In the same year he met Gian Carlo Menotti, an Italian-born librettist, composer and conductor. This meeting led to a lifelong friendship and professional relationship.

Barber drew attention to himself as early as 1931, when he was barely past twenty, with Overture to School for Scandal, op. 5, premiered by Philadelphia Orchestra. Since then his music has been regulary performed by notable conductors and performers (Toscanini, Mitropoulos, Horowitz...). His early works are full of lyricism making him a "tone poet", a poet that could sense and capture the feelings and essence of his subject. Notable examples of this are Music for a Scene from Shelley, op. 7 (1933), Symphony no. 1, op. 9 (1936) and Essay no.1 for Orchestra, op. 12 (1937). These works are full of deep emotions and composer's thoughts. From this period dates his best-known piece Adagio for strings, op. 11 (1937) which is actually the slow movement from his String quartet in B minor, op.11 (1936). This piece was premiered by the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1938 under Toscanini and, full of serenity and expressive emotions, soon became one of the most popular American classical pieces. During World War II, Barber, then a worldwide famous composer, was a Corporal in the U.S. Air Force. In 1944 the U.S. Air Force asked him to write a symphony. So, in 1944, Barber wrote Symphony No. 2, op. 19 - a work that describes a flight, terrors of war and feeling of victory. The piece was first performed by the Boston Symphony under Sergey Koussevitzky. It was a great success.

In 1945, as WWII was ending, Barber was commissioned by Koussevitzky to write a cello concerto for Raya Garbousova, a Russian cellist. The composer asked Garbousova to play her entire repertoire for him so he could become familiar with her skills and potentials. This resulted in one of the Barber's most important works and (judged by performers) one of thee most challenging works for cello. For soprano Eleanor Steber, Barber wrote a scene for soprano and orchestra Knoxville: Summer of 1915 op. 24 (1947). This work is a set of poems by James Agee.

Barber finished his first opera Vanessa (op. 37) in 1957. It is a 4-act stage work to a libretto by G.C. Menotti. It was premiered by the Metropolitan Opera House, New York in 1958 to great critical acclaim.

At that time it seemed that Barber's star would never stop rising. But, in 1966 Barber had a failure with his biggest work: opera Anthony and Cleopatra with a libretto by Franco Zeffirelli. The work was revised in 1974 with help from his lifelong companion Gian Carlo Menotti, but it never gained any success. Due to this failure and, surely, to a cancer that was slowly but steadily killing him, Barber's writing trailed off. Though he had some commissions in the 1970s, his late works were not performed as often. Barber died in 1981.

Samuel Barber was a curious figure in the music world of the first half of the 20th century. At the time of avant-garde (Var`ese wrote his Ionisation in 1931) and of Aaron Copland's founding of American music, Barber did not stick to any style - a fact that often confused critics. In 1970s Barber said "It is said that I have no style at all but that doesn't matter. I just go on doing, as they say, my thing." Nevertheless, he received numerous awards: two Pulitzer prices (in 1958 for Vanessa and in 1963 for Piano Concerto No. 1), the American "Prix de Rome", and he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

A nice overview of Barber's early pieces may be found on Special Music SCD-8012 performed by Andrew Schenck and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Works include Overture to the School for Scandal, Music For a Scene From Shelley, First Essay, Symphony no.2 and Adagio for Strings. His Cello concerto is well recorded and performed on Virgin Classics' VC 91083-2 (with Cello sonata and Adagio). Though not mentioned in above text, Barber's songs, colourful and emotional, have a very important place in his legacy. They can be found on "The Songs" DG 435 867-2 2CD box with Hampson, Studer, Browning accompanied by Emerson Quartet. "Knoxville", with Adagio, Essays Nos. 1&2, "School for Scandal" and Medea's Dance of Vengeance" on Telarc CD-80250.

Alen Hadzovic
April 2000
Used by permission of the author

Essay contributed by:
Alen Hadzovic

General Bibliography:

Slonimsky, Nicolas, Music Since 1900, Schirmer Books, July 1994, ISBN: 0028724186

Salzman, Eric, Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction, Pearson, October 2001, ISBN: 0130959413

Slonimsky, Nicolas and Kuhn, Laura; Editors, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Gale Group, December 2000, ISBN: 0028655257

Sadie, Stanley and Tyrrell, John; Editors, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Groves Dictionaries, Inc., January 2004, ISBN: 0195170679

Rutherford-Johnson, Tim, Kennedy, Michael, and Kennedy, Joyce The Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford University Press, 6th Edition, 2012, ISBN: 0199578109

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