Although their styles were very different, early to mid-twentieth century composers George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and Leonard Bernstein created the music that, for listeners both in the United States and around the world, came to be identified as an "American sound," characterized by generous lyricism and emotional directness. Barber, who was born in 1910, and whose centenary was recognized on his birthday, March 9, stands out because he was the only one of the four not to prominently incorporate jazz or other popular American idioms into his style. He was the most introspective of the group, and while his music is often at its most effective when it reflects that quality, he had a broad expressive range, and his music could be whimsically humorous, passionate, or starkly powerful. He had a terrific gift for melody, and much of his music is notable for a sweeping lyricism and Romantic warmth. Even at its gentlest and most modest, Barber's music has a quiet strength that is evidence of the high level of inspiration, clear vision, and sheer musical skill that mark him as one the 20th century American composers whose work is most likely to endure.
Barber was born into a middle-class home in Westchester, Pa. He showed early musical promise, and his talents were nurtured by his aunt, the world famous contralto Louise Homer and his uncle, the song writer Sidney Homer. He was enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, studying composition, piano, and voice, when he was 14, the year the school was founded. In 1928, the 17-year-old Gian Carlo Menotti came to study at Curtis, and he and Barber formed a bond that would last most of Barber's life. As a student, Barber wrote several songs that have entered the repertoire, including a setting of Dover Beach for baritone and string quartet, and vocal music continued to be a significant part of his work throughout his life. His graduation piece was Overture to The School for Scandal, one of his most frequently-performed orchestral works.
After graduation from Curtis, Barber and Menotti lived and worked for several years in Europe. It was there, during one of the happiest periods of his life, that Barber wrote a string quartet, the second movement of which became his most famous work, Adagio for Strings. Arturo Toscanini performed the Adagio with the NBC Symphony in 1938, and his career was effectively launched. His 1939 Violin Concerto further established his international reputation. After returning to the U.S., Barber and Menotti purchased a house, Capricorn, in Mount Kisco, New York in 1943, that would be their home for nearly 30 years. During the Second World War, Barber served in the Army Air Corps, where his duties included writing a symphony, his second.
He entered what could probably be called his most productive period, which continued into the mid-1960s, writing some of his most enduring pieces, including the Capricorn Concerto, for flute, oboe, trumpet, and strings; a Cello Concerto; a Piano Sonata (commissioned by Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers); Knoxville: Summer of 1915, an extended song for voice and orchestra with a text by James Agee; Mélodies passagères, for voice and piano; Hermit Songs, for voice and piano, using medieval texts; the chamber opera, A Hand of Bridge; Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, taken from the 1947 ballet, Cave of the Heart, written for Martha Graham; the cantata, Prayers of Kierkegaard; Summer Music, for wind quintet; the opera, Vanessa; a Piano Concerto, and Andromache's Farewell, a concert scena for soprano and orchestra, the last two commissioned for the opening of Lincoln Center. Some of the most prestigious musicians in the world performed his music and became champions of his work, including Leontyne Price, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Eleanor Steber, Martina Arroyo, Vladimir Horowitz, John Browning, Arturo Toscanini, Eugene Ormandy, Bruno Walter, George Szell, and Sergey Koussevitsky.
Barber received his first Pulitzer Prize for Vanessa, which had been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, and which had its premiere in 1958, with an all-star cast that included Eleanor Steber in the title role, Rosalind Elias, Nicolai Gedda, Regina Resnik, and Giorgio Tozzi. Menotti wrote the libretto, and Barber produced some of his most sweepingly Romantic and musically sophisticated work. Vanessa was hailed as the first great American "grand opera," and while it has not entered the mainstream repertoire, it continues to receive a good number of productions for an American opera. Barber's 1962 Piano Concerto won the composer his second Pulitzer Prize.
With his outstanding success as an opera composer, and because of the widespread popularity of his music, Barber was a natural choice when the Metropolitan Opera decided to commission a new American work to inaugurate its new opera house in Lincoln Center in 1966, and it would prove to be a turning point in his life. He chose the director Franco Zeffirelli to adapt the libretto from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, and he wrote the role of Cleopatra for Leontyne Price, one of his strongest interpreters. The premiere proved to be a colossal failure, and while there was plenty of fault to be spread around, including the overblown, grandiose sets, costumes, and staging; the malfunctioning stage machinery (which trapped Price inside a pyramid during what was supposed to be her opening aria); and the unrealistically high expectations created by the momentous occasion, much of the blame was laid on Barber's music. (Barber later revised the work, and on the basis of the less overpowering productions it has received since, the quality of music itself is clearly evident.) Barber was so devastated by the intensity of the animosity toward his work after the premiere that he never regained his self confidence. He was temperamentally disposed to melancholy, which, after the failure of the opera, turned into clinical depression. Barber and Menotti had been drifting apart, and a further blow came when Menotti decided to move to Scotland, necessitating the sale of Capricorn in 1972. Barber wrote that he never again had a real home. Although he continued to compose sporadically, he produced only a few significant works, most notably the cantata, The Lovers, but they have not achieved the popularity of his earlier pieces.
Barber was always a highly sensitive individual, and while he remained fiercely committed to his artistic vision, he was deeply wounded by the attacks of critics who, with the ascendency of a more modernist aesthetic, dismissed his music as old-fashioned, naïve, and irrelevant. The seeds of his sense of estrangement from the musical establishment were planted early in his career, when Leopold Stokowski rejected a piano concerto he wrote as a student, calling it backward looking rather than forward looking. The wide popular enthusiasm for his music for much of his career, though, was a cushion against the critics who did not take him seriously. After the failure of Antony and Cleopatra, it was harder for him not to take to heart the virulence of the criticism of his work and his aesthetic, and he became increasingly bitter. He wrote that at his funeral, he wanted a performance of the final madrigal from The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore, Menotti's own artfully couched polemic against modernism, that railed against "the indifferent killers of the poet's dreams.…"
The tragedy of Barber's life was that, at the end, he lost confidence that the melodic lyricism and warm expressiveness that he strove to convey in his music would continue to be appreciated. In fact, though, in spite of the changes in musical taste in the last 75 years, there hasn't been a time when Barber's music has not found appreciative and even adoring audiences. His songs continue to be sung and his piano music played on countless recitals. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is firmly established on orchestra concerts as a classic of Americana. The number of productions and recordings of Vanessa continues to increase. The Violin Concerto is a favorite of soloists and audiences, and is considered essential to the repertoire. More than any of his other works, though, Adagio for Strings established Barber as one of the best known and beloved American composers. It has taken on iconic status as a profound and universally understood expression of grief, played at the funerals of royalty and heads of state, in times of crisis and suffering, and in memory of slain heroes. The piece is a testament that Barber's musical vision -- to write music of the highest artistic standards that can also touch the heart -- has indeed been deeply valued, and shows every indication of continuing to flourish.
The Daisies, for voice and piano
Thomas Hampson, baritone; John Browning, piano
Dover Beach, for baritone and string quartet
Thomas Hampson, baritone; Emerson String Quartet
Overture to The School for Scandal
Marin Alsop, cond., Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Symphony No. 1
Marin Alsop, cond.; Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Adagio for Strings
Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra -- Adagio for Strings
Hilary Hahn, violin; Hugh Wolff, cond.
Movement 1. Allegro
Movement 2. Andante
Movement 3. Presto in moto
Nocturne "Homage to John Field" for piano
Paul Barnes, piano
Second Essay for Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin, cond.; St. Louis Symphony
The Cave of the Heart
Miki Orihara, dancer; Martha Graham, choreographer
Sonata for Piano
Paul Barnes, piano
1. Allegro energico
2. Allegro vivace e leggero
Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Sylvia McNair, soprano; Yoel Levi, cond.
Leontyne Price, soprano, Thomas Schippers, cond. - Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Leontyne Price, soprano; Samuel Barber, piano
St. Ita's Vision
The Monk and His Cat
Helen Semple, soprano; Polina Gerasimenko, piano - Hermit Songs 1-8
Summer Music for wind quintet
1. Slow and indolent
3. Lively, still faster
Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano; Leonard Slatkin, cond.
Must the winter come so soon
Neeme Järvi, cond.; Detroit Symphony -
Under the Willow Tree
Frederica von Stade, mezzo-soprano; James Conlon, cond. - Must the winter come so soon
John Browning, piano; Leonard Slatkin, cond.
Movement 1 - Allegro passionato
Movement 2 - Canzone; Moderato
Movement 3 - Allegro molto
Antony and Cleopatra
David Zinman, Orchestra of St. Luke's
Give me some music
Leontyne Price, soprano; Thomas Schippers, cond.
Give me my robe
Christian Badea, cond. Spoleto Festival Orchestra and Westminster Chorus
The Death of Cleopatra
Carole Vaness, soprano; James Conlon, cond. - Give me my robe
Agnus Dei (Adagio for Strings arranged for chorus)
Robert Spano, cond.; Atlanta Symphony Chorus