Although Samuel Barber lived to be seventy years old and never stopped composing, he was and is best known for works that he wrote before he reached the age of thirty. Foremost among these is the Adagio for Strings. Completed when Barber was only twenty-six, it has become indelibly associated with mourning. Beginning with the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Adagio has been played at numerous nationally significant funerals in the United States, as well as at similar events in other countries. It has also been used in several cinematic soundtracks, such as Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980).
Samuel Barber was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on March 9, 1910. He was certain of his career path by the age of nine, as evidenced by a letter to his mother. Barber confessed, “I have written to tell you my worrying secret…I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure” (Heyman 7). As he had already been composing since the age of six, his early commitment to the craft was not surprising.
Barber began his instrumental studies with cello lessons, but when he began to teach himself to play the piano at the age of nine, his parents sent him to a local piano teacher. He made swift progress, and by the time he was eleven, he was also playing the pipe organ at his family’s church. A strong singer, he wrote many of his early compositions for voice, which included, at age ten, one act of an opera (The Rose Tree) to a libretto by the Barber family’s cook.
Members of Barber’s extended family also encouraged his development. The mentorship of his uncle, Sidney Homer, a well respected composer, and that of his aunt, renowned opera singer Louise Homer, were important influences. At Sidney Homer’s urging, the Barbers decided to allow their son to study at the Curtis Institute of Music; he entered as one of the Philadelphia school’s very first students.
By the time he enrolled at the Curtis Institute in 1924, Barber had already composed works for solo piano, duo piano, organ, violin, and voice. He remained at the school for the next ten years and undertook rigorous studies in piano, singing, and composition. His composition studies, overseen by a professor named Rosario Scalero, focused on music theory, counterpoint, and orchestration, along with the analysis of major works from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century.
While a student, Barber maintained a compositional preference for vocal music, producing songs such as “The Daisies,” “Bessie Bobtail,” and “With rue my heart is laden.” These three songs, now well known, were written between 1927 and 1934 and published in 1936 as his Opus 2.
Travels and Early Recognition
Beginning in 1928, Barber made a series of trips to Europe, both to travel and to continue work with his composition teacher Scalero, who spent summers in Gressoney, Italy with his family. There Barber worked on the violin sonata (now lost) that in 1929 earned him his first award, the Joseph H. Bearns Prize, in a competition at Columbia University. He frequently attended concert and opera performances, and was introduced to a number of significant figures in European music, including composer George Antheil in Vienna, music critic Oskar Adler, and Olga Novakovic, a student of Arnold Schoenberg. Upon his return to Curtis, Barber, freshly inspired by his experiences in Europe, quickly completed the sonata and his Serenade for String Quartet or String Orchestra, Op. 1.
Barber returned to Europe in the summer of 1929, this time with his friend, the Italian-born American composer Gian Carlo Menotti. The two had met during Barber’s first years at the Curtis Institute and had quickly developed what became a lifelong personal and professional relationship. After stops in Milan, Florence, and Menotti’s hometown of Cadegliano, they met with Scalero once more. In Gressoney, Barber began work on his first piano concerto (also now lost), which he finished in 1930.
The next summer in Cadegliano, he dedicated his efforts to writing the overture to The School for Scandal, Op. 5. Like many of Barber’s compositions, the overture and its title draw on a classic work of literature; in this case, the allusion is to Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s eighteenth-century play. The following summer Barber’s Cello Sonata, Op. 6, occupied his attention. This was the final piece written under Scalero’s supervision, and Barber dedicated it to his teacher. The Cello Sonata still holds a notable place in cello repertoire today.
In late 1934 Mary Bok, founder of the Curtis Institute, invited G. Schirmer’s president Carl Engel to hear the Serenade, along with Dover Beach (Op. 3), a setting of Matthew Arnold’s poem for string quartet and voice. Engel was impressed, and this performance led to the publication of Barber’s Op.2 songs, the Cello Sonata and Dover Beach.
In 1934 Engel introduced Barber to Werner Janssen, the temporary conductor of the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. Janssen organized a presentation of Barber’s music on an NBC radio broadcast as part of a special series called the “Music Guild.” The program aired in February 1935 and included the Serenade, the Cello Sonata, “The Daisies,” and Dover Beach. Barber himself performed at the concert. He accompanied the sonata and sang the songs, his own baritone lending a special authenticity to the songs’ interpretation. This concert was America’s first exposure to Barber and his music, and the reaction to his works was positive.
Following this initial success, the Cello Sonata and his orchestral work Music for a Scene from Shelley won him the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1935. As a condition of this award, Barber went to Rome at the age of twenty-five for a two-year course of study at the American Academy. While in residence there, he composed his Symphony in One Movement, Op. 9, which debuted in Rome and was shortly thereafter performed by the Cleveland Orchestra. In addition, he set six poems by James Joyce (three of which were published as Op. 10), whose challenging texts Barber revisited later (“Solitary Hotel” in Op. 41, “Nuvoletta,” Op. 25, and the orchestral piece Fadograph of a Yestern Scene, Op. 44).
At about the same time as his symphony’s premiere, Barber’s String Quartet in B minor, Op. 11, also received its first performance at the American Academy. The second movement of this work became Barber’s most famous composition, the Adagio for Strings. None other than Arturo Toscanini conducted his five-part arrangement of the movement for string orchestra in a radio broadcast on November 5, 1938,with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. This auspicious debut marked the beginning of the piece’s enduring popularity with audiences.
New Career Directions
From 1939 through 1942, Barber held a teaching position in composition at the Curtis Institute. 1942 saw the completion of the Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 15, first performed by the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Bruno Walter. Like the Adagio, the Second Essay has found a permanent place in the orchestral canon.
That same year, with the U.S. now at war, Barber began military duty. He participated in military training and clerical work during the day, and composed at home in the evening whenever he could. His Second Symphony, Op. 19, dates from these years, as well as music written especially for the United States Army, such as the band favorite Commando March (1943). During this time, he and Menotti settled together as a couple in a New York house that they called Capricorn. A 1944 chamber work, the Capricorn Concerto, is named for the house.
After the war, Barber ventured to write his first major work for the stage, the ballet Medea, Op. 23. He wrote it for Martha Graham and her dance company, which performed the piece at Columbia University on May 10, 1946 under the title Serpent Heart; it was later called Cave of the Heart. A subsequent arrangement by Barber of the piece became the orchestral suite known as Medea.
In 1947, soprano Eleanor Steber commissioned Barber to write a piece for her to sing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which was under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky. For this commission, Barber wrote the nostalgic and contemplative Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24, which was a setting of a prose text by the Southern writer James Agee. This vocal-orchestral work was composed shortly before the death of Barber’s father, Roy, and Barber dedicated the work to him.
Among the other works from this period, the Piano Sonata in E minor, Op. 26 (1949), is particularly notable. It was commissioned by two legendary figures of American musical theater, Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin, for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the New York-based League of Composers, and was recognized instantly as a significant American composition. The sonata was the first important American piano work performed by an international star, Vladimir Horowitz.
In the early 1950s, Barber spent time studying conducting, applying his newly acquired skills to performances of his own works. He also completed two major song cycles: Mélodies passagères, Op. 27, on texts by Rainer Maria Rilke, and the still beloved Hermit Songs, Op. 29, on medieval Irish texts translated by various authors. The Hermit Songs were first sung in 1953 by soprano Leontyne Price.
Barber had been considering writing an opera since the 1930s but was unable to settle on a libretto. He turned down a commission from the Metropolitan Opera in 1942 because he was disappointed with the proffered text. That same year, the war forced him to abandon plans for an operatic collaboration with the poet Dylan Thomas. When the Metropolitan Opera again approached Barber after the war, he once more set about looking for a suitable librettist. After unsuccessful discussions with James Agee, Thornton Wilder, and Stephen Spender, he at last decided to try a professional partnership with Menotti.
Menotti was a celebrated opera composer in his own right by that time and wrote his own libretti. He developed the story and libretto for Barber’s opera Vanessa, Op. 32, using a typical emotionally dramatic style, but the story contained a psychological darkness that is considered one of Menotti’s hallmarks. When it opened in January 1958 starring Eleanor Steber and Nicolai Gedda, the opera received accolades from audiences and critics alike. It earned Barber a Pulitzer Prize, as well as the honor of a nomination to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Since the collaboration on Vanessa had been so successful, Barber and Menotti worked together again in 1959. The result was a ten-minute opera, A Hand of Bridge, Op. 35, premiered at Menotti’s Spoleto Festival.
At this point in his career, Barber was frequently commissioned to write new works. Among Barber’s most significant commissions were three works to be presented for the opening of Lincoln Center in 1962. These commissions resulted in the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 38, the aria/scene for soprano and orchestra Andromache’s Farewell, Op. 39, and the opera Antony and Cleopatra, Op, 40.
The concerto was written with the pianist John Browning in mind, and when he performed it for the first time in September 1962, it was thoroughly lauded. The debut at Lincoln Center’s new Philharmonic Hall took place with Erich Leinsdorf conducting Browning and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. For this work, Barber was awarded his second Pulitzer Prize in 1963. His second commission for Lincoln Center’s opening concert series, Andromache’s Farewell, was premiered by soprano Martina Arroyo to a warm reception.
Barber’s opera Antony and Cleopatra, commissioned for the 1966 debut season of the new Metropolitan Opera house at Lincoln Center, proved more problematic. The libretto was drawn from Shakespeare and adapted by the famed film and opera director Franco Zeffirelli. Zeffirelli also directed and designed the first production. The elaborate stage settings caused complications on opening night, with mechanical malfunctions and detrimental effects on the acoustics. Even Leontyne Price’s Cleopatra could not save the production, and the opera was heavily criticized. Additionally, reviewers complained that the opera’s dramatic structure lacked cohesion, and that the music did not contain enough of the lyrical compositional style for which Barber was known.
After the opera’s initial failure, Barber, with the help of Menotti, spent nearly a decade on structural revisions. Menotti also directed the opera when the new version was produced at Juilliard in 1975. Even after the revised version received a more positive response, its acceptance into the canon of opera was slow.
Barber’s Last Years
After the failed premiere of Antony and Cleopatra, Barber began to suffer increasingly from depression and alcoholism, and experienced periods of time when he could not write. Of those works that he did produce in his last fifteen years, many are songs, such as the song cycle Despite and Still, Op. 41. These songs, first performed by Leontyne Price, include texts by Robert Graves, Theodore Roethke, and James Joyce. Another song cycle from this period, Three Songs, Op. 45, was written for the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
In 1978, as Barber’s health further declined, he completed the Third Essay for Orchestra and began a concerto for oboe. By 1980 he was undergoing treatment for cancer and recognized that he would not be able to finish the concerto. He decided to leave it as the short Canzonetta for Oboe and String Orchestra, Op. 48, and relied on his student and friend Charles Turner to add the last touches to the work.
Samuel Barber died of cancer on January 23, 1981. His works are frequently performed in both America and abroad, and it is clear that his contributions to the world of music reach far beyond American national boundaries. Attention to his music has only increased in recent years, with previously unpublished compositions now recorded and in print.
Heyman, Barbara B. Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.