Samuel Barber

American composer noted for craft and emotional power. His Adagio for Strings is one of the more popular classical works of the mid-20th century.

Vital Statistics
March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania
January 23, 1981, in New York City
Performed As:
Pianist, singer (baritone), conductor
During Lifetime:
Immediately after World War II, the United Nations is chartered in San Francisco in 1945, with Eleanor Roosevelt leading the U.S. delegation. The former First Lady plays an important role in the adoption of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights.
Biographical Outline
  • Boy wonder, 1910–1927: Growing up with music in the house (his aunt is Metropolitan Opera star Louise Homer and his uncle, Sidney Homer, is a composer who has a lifelong impact on Barber’s style), Barber decides early on to become a composer, and writes an operetta at age 10. Four years later he is admitted into the newly established Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
  • Launching a career, 1928–1937: In 1928, while at conservatory, Barber meets fellow composer and future life partner Gian Carlo Menotti. Well-trained and a favorite of the school’s founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, Barber begins his professional career auspiciously with the publication of the delightful School for Scandal Overture, in 1931. He completes his well-regarded setting of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, for soprano and string quartet, in the same year. He travels in Europe, particularly Italy, and wins a Rome Prize, which sends him to the American Academy for 1935–37. While there, he writes his string quartet, arranging the second movement for string orchestra (the famous Adagio for Strings). He also completes his First Symphony.
  • The shadow of war, 1938–1945: NBC broadcasts the renowned NBC Orchestra, under Arturo Toscanini, playing the premiere of Barber’s Essay (No. 1) for Orchestra. For three years, 1939–42, Barber teaches at the Curtis Institute, but in 1942 he joins the U.S. Army Air Forces, becoming its resident composer. In 1943, a gift from Bok enables Barber and Menotti to buy a house in Mt. Kisco, New York, which they name “Capricorn.” They are regularly visited by a wide variety of artists and intellectuals, and their domestic happiness brings greater productivity for both composers.
  • Sunlit years, 1946–1966: Now at the peak of his powers, Barber unveils Medea, his ballet score for the Martha Graham Dance Company, in 1946; Knoxville, Summer of 1915, a song with orchestra, in 1947; and his lone piano sonata in 1949. (All are still in the world repertory; in 1953 Barber reworks his ballet score for orchestra and soprano, as Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23a). His opera Vanessa (1958) receives its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, wins a Pulitzer Prize, and becomes the first American opera performed at Austria’s Salzburg Festival. He writes three works for the opening of Lincoln Center, including the opera Antony and Cleopatra, his second commission for the Met.
  • Depression and decline, 1966–1981: When the premiere of Antony and Cleopatra is hammered by the critics, Barber withdraws to a villa in Italy, where he battles depression. He and his lifelong partner, Menotti, separate and “Capricorn,” their home, is sold. Barber continues to compose in New York City but drinks too much. Cared for by Menotti, he dies of cancer and is buried in Oaklands Cemetery in the town of his birth, West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Fun Facts
  • Country boy: Although he was quick-witted — if occasionally waspish — and an entertaining companion, Barber was essentially a reserved man, who preferred living in the country. He never felt at home in New York City.
  • Fine tuning: Barber was extraordinarily cultivated and refined. He read and spoke several languages, and was a sophisticated letter-writer. He loved autobiographies, letters, and gossip, and he subscribed to numerous magazines. He was so well-bred that he found it easy to mingle with the cultural elite, including European nobility.
  • Recognition: Barber was eminent in the 1950s, despite feeling out of sympathy with the dissonant, experimental music of postwar modernism. He was named vice president of the International Music Council of the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1952, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1958. He was the first American composer to make an official visit to the Soviet Union, in 1962.
  • Turn-ons: Barber loved Rocky Road ice cream and soap operas, particularly As the World Turns.
  • “Turn that darn music down!”: Barber’s upstairs neighbor in his New York City apartment building was jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. The two became friends.
  • An empty grave: Menotti, Barber’s life partner, had intended to be buried next to Barber, but his adopted son had him buried in the town in Scotland where he had his estate.
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Explore the Music

A composer with a great lyrical gift, Barber wrote in an accessible, traditional idiom.

  • Power of suggestion: The Adagio for Strings has been featured in a number of movies, including Platoon, The Elephant Man, El Norte, and Lorenzo’s Oil.
  • Populist: Despite enduring derision from many postwar modernists, Barber never apologized for trying to reach audiences with his music. His catalog of works includes several written purely for enjoyment, like the piano suite Excursions, which includes a boogie-woogie first movement, a blues, a western song, and a square dance; and his choral work Die Natali, based on popular Christmas carols.
  • Literate symphonist: Barber, who was devoted to literature and was himself a fine writer, conceived of his musical “Essays” as single-movement symphonic works that develop a single theme or main idea, much as a literary essay or an abstract symphonic poem does.
  • Song spinner: With his mastery of writing for voice, Barber is one of America’s greatest song composers. Dover Beach, Sure on This Shining Night, Hermit Songs, and Knoxville, Summer of 1915 are among his most enduring, popular works.
  • Anatomy of a failure: Conceived by Barber as an intimate portrait of the main characters, Antony and Cleopatra was nevertheless given the full, faux-Egyptian treatment at its 1966 Metropolitan Opera premiere, by director Franco Zeffirelli. Barber was even asked to write extra, scenic music to accompany battles, and so on. After its devastating failure, Barber collaborated with Menotti to return the score to more of his original conception, but by then Barber’s reputation was in temporary eclipse. The opera, with some of Barber’s finest music in it, awaits rediscovery.
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