Samuel Barber

One of America’s most critically recognized composers of contemporary music, Samuel Barber was born in 1910 in Westchester, Pennsylvania to Samuel LeRoy Barber and Marguerite McLeod. From his beginnings as a composer, it was evident that he had great musical talent and ability, having written his first piece at age 7. Though his parents encouraged him to take football lessons and engage in sports, he became profoundly interested in studying music at a very young age. By the age of 10, Barber had made his first attempts at writing an opera.

In 1924, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia was scheduled to open its doors for the first time, and Barber applied for entrance. He was accepted at the age of 14, and became one of the school’s charter students. Although he had not yet graduated high school, his father, through his position on the school board, made it possible for Samuel to attend both schools simultaneously. Barber’s association with the Institute was a vital part of his development as a musician and played an integral role in his life as a composer.

Initially, Barber’s main focus at Curtis was piano performance, but he soon added composition and vocal performance as subsequent majors, on top of a curriculum already including conducting, music theory, and foreign language. Barber excelled in his foreign language classes, and his instructor, Rosario Scalero, introduced him to a young student from Italy named Giancarlo Menotti in 1928. Menotti spoke no English, but was fluent in French, and Barber was excelling in his French studies, so the two were able to communicate. That relationship grew and the two remained inseparable until Barber’s death in 1981, a friendship spanning nearly 53 years.

Beginning in 1928, Barber spent several consecutive summers in Europe absorbing as much culture as he could, which perhaps gave him an international sensibility towards his compositional style. Throughout his 20’s, he wrote many successful compositions that launched him into the classical music spotlight. His most widely recognized work, Adagio for Strings, was performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arturo Toscanini in 1938, along with his first Essay for Orchestra. Though Toscanini rarely performed music by American composers, he remarked after the first rehearsal that the Adagio was “simple and beautiful”.

WWII did not directly affect Barber’s life immediately, and he returned to Curtis to conduct and to teach. However, he was drafted into the Army in 1943 as a result of U.S. involvement in the war and was ultimately asked to compose an original work for the war effort. This result was Commando March, and he was discharged from the Army in 1945.  

Eventually diagnosed with clinical depression, Barber spent many years in isolation, especially after the harsh rejection of his third opera, Antony and Cleopatra, which has since been revised with Menotti’s assistance and has enjoyed success. After this setback, he continued to write music up until his death. Barber died of cancer in 1981 in New York City at the age of 70, and was buried in Oaklands Cemetery in his hometown of Westchester, Pennsylvania. Though his Adagio for Strings is undoubtedly his most widely known work, he also composed operas, choral works, and piano pieces in addition to orchestral repertoire. Additionally, He was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music, for his opera Vanessa (with libretto by Menotti) and his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. While some criticize Barber for being too traditional and conservative, he always remained true to himself and was constantly refining his style and voice, while never succumbing to the latest fashions.

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