Barber was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania. At a very early age, Barber became profoundly interested in music, and it was apparent that he had great musical talent and ability. At the age of nine he wrote to his mother:
He wrote his first musical composition at the early age of 7 and attempted to write his first opera at the age of 10. He was an organist at the age of 12. When he was 14, he entered the Curtis Institute, a conservatory where he studied piano, composition, and voice.
Barber was born into a comfortable, educated, social, and distinguished American family. His father was a doctor, and his mother was a pianist. His aunt, Louise Homer, was a leading Contralto at the Metropolitan Opera and his uncle, Sidney Homer, was a composer of American art songs. Louise Homer is noted to have influenced Barber's interest in voice. Through his aunt, Barber had access to many great singers and songs. This background is further reflected in that Barber decided to study voice at the Curtis Conservatory.
Barber began composing seriously in his late teenage years. Around the same time, he met fellow Curtis schoolmate Gian Carlo Menotti, and would form a lifelong personal and professional relationship. At the Curtis Institute, Barber was a triple prodigy of composition, voice, and piano. He soon became a favorite of the conservatory's founder, Mary Louise Bok. It was through Bok that Barber would be introduced to his one and only publisher, the Schirmer family. At the age of 18, Barber won a prize from Columbia University for his Violin Sonata (now lost or destroyed by the composer).
From his early to late twenties, Barber wrote a flurry of successful compositions, launching him into the spotlight of the classical music community. Many of his compositions were commissioned or first performed by such famous artists as Vladimir Horowitz, Eleanor Steber, Raya Garbousova, John Browning, Leontyne Price, Pierre Bernac, Francis Poulenc, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. At the young age of 28, Barber's Adagio for Strings was performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arturo Toscanini. Barber was the first American composer to have a composition performed by Toscanini, launching him to international prominence. Barber served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, where he was commissioned to write his Second Symphony, a work he later suppressed (which was resurrected in a Vox recording by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra). He would go on to win a Pulitzer prize in 1963 for his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.
Barber spent many years in isolation (eventually diagnosed with clinical depression) after the harsh rejection of his third opera Anthony and Cleopatra (which he believed contained some of his best music. "This was supposed to have been my opera!" he said). The opera was written for and premiered at the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House on 16 September 1966. After this setback, Barber continued to write music until he was almost 70 years old. Barber's music in his later years would be lauded as reflective, contemplative, but without the morbidity or unhappiness of other composers who knew they had a limited time to live. The Third Essay for Orchestra (1978) was his last major work and critics received it as having all the vigor and imagination of his earlier works.
Barber died of cancer in 1981 in New York City at the age of 70.
Barber was president of the International Music Council of UNESCO, where he did much to bring into focus and ameliorate the conditions of international musical problems. He was also one of the first American composers to visit Russia (which was a state-member of USSR). Barber was also influential in the successful campaign of composers against ASCAP, helping composers increase the share of royalties they receive from their compositions. Barber was the recipient of numerous awards and prizes including the American Prix de Rome, two Pulitzers, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Achievements and awards
Barber intensely played and studied the music of J.S. Bach. He also was an adherent of Brahms, from whom he learned how to compress profound emotions into small modules of highly charged musical expression (Cello Sonata, 1932). In 1933, after reading the poem "Prometheus Unbound" by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Barber composed the tone poem Music for a Scene from Shelley. In 1935, the work was premiered at Carnegie Hall, and this was the first time the composer heard one of his orchestral works performed publicly. Barber's compositional style has been lauded for its musical logic, sense of architectural design, effortless melodic gift, and direct emotional appeal as in Overture to The School for Scandal (1931) and Music for a Scene from Shelley (1933). These characteristics remained in his music throughout his lifetime.
Through the success of his Overture to The School for Scandal(1931), Music for a Scene from Shelley (1933), Adagio for Strings (1938); (First) Symphony in One Movement(1936), (First) Essay for Orchestra (1937) and Violin Concerto (1939), Barber garnered performances by the world's leading conductors — Eugene Ormandy, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Bruno Walter, Charles Munch, George Szell, Artur Rodzinski, Leopold Stokowski, and Thomas Schippers.
His compositions would later include characteristics of polytonality (Second Symphony, 1944), atonality (Medea, 1946; Prayers of Kierkegaard, 1954), Twelve-tone technique (Nocturne, 1959 and the Piano Sonata, 1949), and even jazz (Excursions, 1944; A Hand of Bridge, 1959). Barber's composition were never lauded to be pathbreaking, but his compositions were an eclectic blend of the "musical currents hovering about in his time". John Corigliano succinctly described Barber's style as "an interesting dichotomy of harmonic procedures — an alternation between post-Straussian chromaticism and often diatonic typical American simplicity."
Among his finest works are his four concertos, one each for Violin (1939), Cello (1945) and Piano (1962), and also the neoclassical Capricorn Concerto for flute, oboe, trumpet and string orchestra. All of these works are extremely rewarding for the soloists and public alike, as all contain both highly virtuosic and extremely beautiful writing, often simultaneously. The latter three have been unfairly neglected until recent years, when there has been a reawakening of interest in the expressive possibilities of these masterpieces.
Having studied piano at Curtis, Barber composed many piano pieces. The four-piano "bagatelles" Excursions (1942-44), was his first venture into Americana music. Its elements of boogie-woogie, blues, cowboy songs, and hoedown are not typical of Barber's classical and refined music. In 1949, Barber wrote his well received Piano Sonata. The Nocturne for Piano (Hommage to John Field), Opus 33, is another respected piece he produced for the instrument.
Gian Carlo Menotti, whom Barber had met at Curtis, supplied the libretto (text) for Barber's opera, Vanessa. Barber's beautiful voice and vocal training were more than adequate to impress Rudolf Bing. In 1956, Barber sang him the score of his opera Vanessa; the impresario was so astonished that he accepted and produced the work immediately. Vanessa would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize and gain acclaim as the first American "grand" opera. Menotti would also go on to contribute the libretto for Barber's chamber opera Hand of Bridge and direct the production of many of Barber's operas. Barber's Antony and Cleopatra was commissioned to open the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966. The elaborate production designed by Franco Zeffirelli was marred by numerous technological disasters; it also overwhelmed and obscured Barber's music, which most critics derailed as uncharacteristically weak and unoriginal. In recent years, a revised version of Antony and Cleopatra, for which Menotti provided collaborative assistance, has enjoyed some success.
With a background deeply rooted in vocals, Barber's love of poetry and his intimate knowledge and appreciation of the human voice inspired his vocal writing. Barber's most famous vocal compositions, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (to words by James Agee) and Dover Beach (to words from a Victorian text by Matthew Arnold), were greatly successful and received critical acclaim, making a powerful case for Barber as one of the twentieth century's most accomplished composers for the voice.
"How awful that the artist has become nothing but the after-dinner mint of society" – Samuel Barber Quote
For a full list of works with opus number and some without, see List of compositions by Samuel Barber
Summer Music for Wind Quintet op. 31 (1956)
Dover Beach (Baritone and String Quartet) (Op. 3, 1931)
The School for Scandal (Overture) (Op. 5, 1931)
Cello Sonata (Op. 6, 1932)
(First) Symphony in One Movement (Op. 9, 1936)
Adagio for strings (arr. of String Quartet, mov't 2) (Op. 11, 1938)
Essay for Orchestra (Op. 12, 1937)
Violin Concerto (Op. 14, 1939)
Second Essay for Orchestra (Op. 17, 1942)
Excursions (Piano) (Op. 20, 1942-44)
Capricorn Concerto (Op. 21, 1944)
Cello Concerto (Op. 22, 1945)
Medea (Ballet) (Op. 23, 1946)
Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (Soprano & Orchestra) (Op. 24, 1948)
Sonata for Piano (Op. 26, 1949)
Hermit Songs (Op. 29, 1953)
Prayers of Kierkegaard (Soprano, Choir & Orchestra) (Op. 30, 1954)
Vanessa (Opera) (Op. 32, 1957)
A Hand of Bridge (Chamber opera) (Op. 35, 1959)
Piano Concerto (Op. 38, 1962) Reference and further reading