Samuel Osborne Barber was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania on March 9, 1910 to an educated, distinguished, and comfortable American family. His father was a doctor and his mother an amateur pianist. He started piano lessons at age six, began composing at age seven, attempted his first opera at age ten, and became a church organist at age twelve. When he was only nine years old, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life and stated in a note to his mother, “I was meant to be a composer and will be I’m sure…Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football—please.”
Barber entered the newly-founded Curtis Institute when he was fourteen. He studied piano, composition, and singing - becoming prodigious in all three. He briefly entertained the idea of becoming a professional singer when he developed a fine baritone voice. But composing was his true calling and by the time he was twenty- three, the Philadelphia Orchestra had performed one of his major orchestral pieces.
Adagio for Strings is the work for which Barber is best known. It is the slow movement from his String Quartet that he composed in 1936, and awarded him the first American to be performed by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony when they introduced it. He would later win numerous awards including two Pulitzers (one for his Piano Concert Op. 38) and the American Prix de Rome.
Barber played or studied the music of Bach every day of his life. His strict composition teacher at Curtis, who recognized Barber’s talents early, is also responsible for Barber’s natural flair for counterpoint. But Barber also loved Brahms and Chopin from whom he learned to express profound emotions. Barber melded his own romantic tendencies with tonality, polytonality, chromatics and unforgettable lyricism resulting in a unique harmonic language that is clearly displayed in the Piano Sonata, Op. 26 written in 1949. Except for the Adagio for Strings, no other Barber work has made an impact on the American musical world. Vladimir Horowitz premiered the piece, which was the first time an American piano piece was played by an internationally renowned virtuoso.
Other important piano works of Barber’s include the set titled Excursions, Op. 20 – four short pieces that embrace the American cultural roots current in the 1940’s and sound like Stravinskian versions of boogie-woogie, blues, cowboy songs, and a hoedown. His popular Nocturne, Op.33 is filled with chromatic melodic filigree and languid arpeggiated accompaniment. It is labeled “homage to John Field”, the inventor of the form but sounds more like a Chopin nocturne. Perhaps it is Barber’s way of acknowledging his appreciation to both composers.
Barber dressed elegantly and spoke in an urbane manner. He knew several languages and was knowledgeable in all the arts and literature – specifically poetry. A book of which always sat on his nightstand. But he also liked gossip, avidly read magazines such as Vanity Fair and The Smithsonian, and watched soap operas. He was a master storyteller, sometimes sprinkling ribaldry in his conversations, and he possessed a wry sense of humor and wit. His wit, however, was a line of defense against deep-rooted melancholia, and these two sides of his nature can be heard in all his music.
After serving time in the Army during World War II, Barber and his partner and fellow composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, lived together in New York. Menotti wrote the libretti for Barber’s operas. Their house, called Capricorn, was like two individual studios for each composer connected by a central room for living and entertaining. Inside Capricorn was one of Barber’s prized possessions – one of Rachmaninoff’s pianos. The two hosts welcomed all American or European artists and intellects who could offer something new and different. Only a couple uptight neighbors had a problem with the setup, calling the home a den of iniquity.
Barber enjoyed a series of triumphs until his opera Antony and Cleopatra hit the stage at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966. The production flopped. The staging was excessive, embarrassing technical mishaps plagued the performance and critics condemned Barber’s music as being ‘irrelevant’. Barber thought it was some of his best music and went into isolation where he was diagnosed with clinical depression.
Over time, Barber and Menotti grew apart. Menotti, more outspoken and fun-loving, liked to have people around him. Barber preferred more quiet times at home. As Menotti’s success in the opera world grew, he travelled excessively, leaving Barber at home to deal with the day-to-day burdens and expenses of maintaining Capricorn. When the house was sold in 1973, Barber was the one more affected. But it wasn’t as if Menotti did not care, as outsiders seemed to think. He had greater resiliency and a busy life to help him over rough times.
Composing became more difficult for Barber in the years that followed, and when the Van Cliburn Competition asked him to compose a short work for their 1977 event, he sweated over the project for nearly a year. The final product was his Ballade, Op. 46, a dark and mysterious piece cast in ternary form. It was the last piano piece Barber composed. He died of cancer at his elegant apartment in New York City in 1981. His life-long friend Menotti was by his side.
to his piano works, Barber wrote three operas, two ballets, two symphonies, three
concertos, and various other orchestral pieces. His love of voice and for poetry never diminished and his compositions for voice accompanied by piano or orchestra have become staples in the repertoire of concert singers and are amont the most popular of 20th century art songs.
Aside from Copland and Gershwin, Barber is seen as one of the most talented American composers of the 20th century. However, his style is not easy to categorize. He belonged to no school or clique, went his own way, and wrote in a European style. His music is lush lyrical melodies infused with tonality, modern dissonant harmonics, and traditional harmonies and forms. Not knowing exactly what name to give to Barber’s music, some have labeled it neo-romantic. Another American composer, John Corigliano, describes Barber’s style as, “an interesting dichotomy of harmonic procedures employed throughout his career – an alternation between post-Straussian chromaticism and often diatonic typical American simplicity.”
In his own words, Barber says that his personal style is, “born of what I feel…I am not a self-conscious composer.”
--Monica Alianello (more on the author)