Samuel Barber. Gordon Parks/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images hide caption
Samuel Barber.Gordon Parks/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Barber, Samuel(b. West Chester, Penn., March 9, 1910; d. New York, Jan. 23, 1981)
American composer Samuel Barber was a nephew of the celebrated contralto Louise Homer and a protege of the composer Sidney Homer, who caught on to young Samuel's gifts when, at the age of 9, he began work on his first opera. In 1924, Barber enrolled in the newly opened Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he studied piano with Isabelle Vengerova, composition with Rosario Scalero and conducting with Fritz Reiner. It was at Curtis that he met another young composer, Gian-Carlo Menotti, who was to become his lifelong companion and professional collaborator. Early works from Barber's student days still hold a place in the repertoire, including Dover Beach — a setting of a Matthew Arnold poem for voice and string quartet; Barber, who had become quite a capable baritone, sang the world premiere — and his graduation exercise, the Overture to The School for Scandal. These works established him as "the one to watch" in his generation of American composers, a status confirmed by his receipt of the Prix de Rome and a Pulitzer traveling grant in 1935, when he was 25.
Violin Concerto, Op. 14 [Allegro]
String Quartet in B major, Op. 11 [2. Molto adagio - attacca:]
Dover Beach, for baritone (or mezzo-soprano) & string quartet, Op. 3
His music caught the ear of Arturo Toscanini, who led the premieres of two works: the Essay for Orchestra (later retitled First Essay for Orchestra) and the Adagio for Strings, one of the best-known works of the 20th century. The essay form — Barber's own creation, something of a musical "argument" in which one "thought" or melody is the seed from which an entire single movement springs — would be something the composer would return to at subsequent points in his life, composing a Second Essay in 1942 and a Third Essay in 1978. His beautifully lyric Violin Concerto (1940) is one of the finest string concertos of the 20th century, with a razzle-dazzle finale and a richly expressive opening movement. He also wrote a piano concerto (which won him a Pulitzer Prize) and a cello concerto. For Vladimir Horowitz, he composed the Piano Sonata in E-flat minor (1949), making it as challenging as possible. Barber's other works for the piano include the Nocturne (Homage to John Field) of 1959 and the beautiful Excursions, Op. 20 (1942-44).
Barber's most exquisite achievements were in the realm of vocal music, particularly the songs of Op. 10 and 13 and his 1947 setting of James Agee's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for soprano and orchestra, commissioned by soprano Eleanor Steber. He also wrote a song cycle called Hermit Songs (1953), in which he set old anonymous Irish texts taken from the walls of monasteries.
In recognition of his preeminent place in American music, the Metropolitan Opera commissioned Barber to compose an opera, Antony and Cleopatra (based on Shakespeare), for the opening of its new home at Lincoln Center in 1966. While not a success in its original production, the opera, which featured Leontyne Price in the role of Cleopatra, manifested yet again Barber's unique mastery of line and color, and his extraordinarily imaginative way of setting a text.
(Ted Libbey is the author of "The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music")
On a 1949 CBS radio program, Samuel Barber talks about the Italian premiere of his first symphony, and writing his second symphony while serving in the army.
Samuel Barber's Essay for Orchestra, Op. 12, completed in the first half of 1938, is an orchestral work in one movement. It was given its first performance by Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony Orchestra on November 5, 1938 in New York in a radio broadcast concert in which the composer's Adagio for Strings saw its first performance. It lasts around 8 minutes and is dedicated "To C.E." The essay is now known as the First Essay for Orchestra after Barber wrote his Second Essay for Orchestra in 1942. He also wrote a Third Essay in 1978.
Barber visited Toscanini several times in 1933 at his villa on Isola di San Giovanni in Lago Maggiore, and the world-famous conductor told Barber that he would like to perform one of his works. This was a great honor for the young composer, particularly because Toscanini rarely performed works by contemporary or American composers. Barber presented his work to Toscanini in the spring of 1938, together with the score of the Adagio for Strings (Heyman 1992, 162–66).
The First Essay resembles but is not equivalent to a first movement of a symphony (Heyman 1992, 166).
Besides the world premiere in 1938, Toscanini also performed the music on January 24, 1942, in a special War Bonds performance that was preserved on transcription discs; Toscanini never made a commercial recording of the music. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded the music in 1942 for RCA Victor in the Academy of Music. Neeme Järvi with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, and Daniel Kawka with the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI have all recorded all three of Barber's Essays.
- Friedwald, Russell Edward. 1957. "A Formal and Stylistic Analysis of the Published Music of Samuel Barber". Ph. D. diss. Ames: Iowa State University.
- Pettis, Ashley. 1938. "Important American Music". The New York Times (November 13).