Biographies Samuel Barber, 1910-1981

Samuel Barber, by Carl van Vechten
[Portrait of Samuel Barber], by Carl Van Vechten, December 11, 1944. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Samuel Osborne Barber II was one of the most frequently performed composers both in the United States and in Europe during the mid-twentieth century. Known for his trademark lyrical style, Barber never abandoned his expressive voice throughout the course of his compositional career. Unlike many of his fellow composers who had to perform or teach to make a living, Barber had the privilege of dedicating nearly all his time to composition. In addition, Barber was unusually fortunate to have virtuoso performers premiere virtually all his works. With over forty published works in his oeuvre (with more than 100 still unpublished, many of which are housed in the Music Division at the Library of Congress), Barber has become one of America's foremost composers.

Barber was born on 9 March 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, a suburb nearly thirty miles from Philadelphia. His father, Roy, was a prominent physician and the president of the West Chester School Board. Barber's mother, Marguerite McLeod Beatty (called Daisy), was the sister of Louise Homer, a celebrated contralto with the Metropolitan Opera and wife of composer Sidney Homer. Thus, Barber was gifted with a financially secure background that afforded him the opportunity to study with the best musicians, as well as with a mentor in his Uncle Sidney, who monitored and encouraged the young man's musical career for over three decades.

When he was six years old, Barber began improvising melodies at the piano, and by the time he was seven, he was composing music. In 1919, Barber began studying piano with Hatton Green, once a pupil of Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna. At age twelve, Barber accepted a position as organist at the First Presbyterian Church; this employment was short lived, however, due to the young Barber's refusal to hold fermatas in hymns and responses. Soon after entering high school, around age fourteen, Barber commuted every Friday to Philadelphia to study music at the newly founded Curtis Institute of Music.

During his nine years of study at the Curtis Institute, Barber took on a trifecta of musical disciplines and distinguished himself in all three. He studied piano with George Boyle and Isabelle Vengerova, voice with Emilio de Gogorza, and composition with Rosario Scalero. It was also at Curtis, in the fall of 1928, that Barber met fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Barber and Menotti would share a close personal and professional relationship that would last over thirty years. Among the compositions Barber penned during his Curtis years include Serenade for String Quartet (1928); Three Songs, op. 2 (1928-34), and Dover Beach (1931), a chamber work for voice and string quartet which was recorded by Barber (an accomplished baritone himself) in 1935.

It was also during his Curtis years that Barber made several trips to Europe, including to Cadegliano, Italy, Menotti's home town. These European excursions would largely impact Barber's compositional style as well as his intellectual development. Upon graduation in 1934, Barber also gained an important and loyal patron: Mary Curtis Bok, founder of the Curtis Institute. Mrs. Bok not only provided financial assistance to Barber (in fact, she helped Barber and Menotti purchase Capricorn, the composers' home in Mount Kisco, New York, in 1943) but she also actively promoted his career.

In 1938, Barber earned international recognition when the legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra broadcast the composer's First Essay for Orchestra and the Adagio for Strings (an arrangement of the second movement of the String Quartet in B minor.) The result of this recognition was manifested in the many commissions offered to Barber from highly respected performers and ensembles, including the U.S. Army Airforce (in which Barber served from 1942-1945) who commissioned the Second Symphony (1943); Raya Garbousova, who commissioned the Cello Concerto (1945); and soprano Eleanor Steber, who commissioned the orchestral song Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947). At the peak of his career, Barber was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes: the first in 1958 for his opera Vanessa, which was staged by the Metropolitan Opera and featured Eleanor Steber in the title role; and the second in 1962 for his Piano Concerto, which was written for the inaugural week of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center and debuted by John Browning. In 1966, Barber was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to write an opera for the grand opening of the new opera house. Barber reluctantly complied, and worked with librettist-producer Franco Zeffirelli to complete his second full-length opera, Antony and Cleopatra. Ironically, this honored commission, intended as a tribute to Barber's work, resulted in the composer's greatest failure. The opera's opening night was widely regarded as nothing less than a fiasco, mostly due to Zeffirelli's extravagant overproduction as well as to the technical and mechanical difficulties experienced by the new opera house.

From 1966 on, Barber's compositional output decreased significantly. He was plagued with bouts of depression and alcoholism, as well as creative blocks that severely hampered his productivity, and was frequently hospitalized for the treatment of cancer during the last year of his life. Barber died on 23 January 1981, and was buried next to his mother in the Barber family plot at the Oaklands Cemetery in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Barber's hallmark among American composers lies in the fact that he embraced his lyrical and expressive compositional style and shunned nearly all of the experimental trends that penetrated music in the first half of the twentieth century. Unlike many of his contemporaries who dabbled with folk music, twelve tone music, or serial music, the majority of Barber's works adhere to traditional European 19th-century models, undoubtedly the result of his studies with Scalero at the Curtis Institute as well as the advice and guidance he received from his Uncle Sidney. Although he composed at least one work for every major genre, Barber possessed a natural affinity for songs, and could write them with ease, often generating songs as a diversion from a larger composition in which he was struggling. It comes as no surprise, then, that Barber's catalog is comprised mostly of songs, with the majority of them still unpublished. It is in this medium that Barber's lyrical gift is most aptly displayed and his legacy celebrated.

Further reading

  • Broder, Nathan. Samuel Barber. New York: G. Schirmer, 1956.
  • Heyman, Barbara. Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.