Samuel Barber (1910-1981) was among the leading figures in 20th-century American music and is perhaps best known for his Adagio for Strings, which has become one of the most recognized pieces in contemporary orchestral music.
Samuel Barber was born on March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, into a middle-class professional family. His maternal aunt was the well-known singer Louise Homer. Barber's mother was an accomplished pianist, and his own musical studies started early. He began composing at the age of seven. In 1924 he entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he remained for nine years, studying composition and piano. He also studied voice, which undoubtedly influenced the cultivation of a strong lyrical style in his musical composition. It was at Curtis that Barber began a lifelong friendship with Gian Carlo Menotti, a newly arrived student from Italy. Although Barber made frequent trips to Europe (as a recipient of the Prix de Rome he spent several years at the American Academy in Rome), he was among the first American composers trained in his own country. The roots of European tradition nevertheless had been assimilated. Except for a brief period of teaching at the Curtis Institute, he maintained his independence, primarily through grants, commissions, and royalties.
Barber's music covers a wide range. Vocal works include choral compositions and solo settings with piano, chamber ensemble, and orchestra. Barber set to music the texts of such literary figures as Matthew Arnold, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, James Agee, Rainer Maria Rilke, and the philosopher SÓren Kierkegaard. Among his orchestral works are three Essays for Orchestra and two symphonies. The performance in 1938 of his first Essay and of his best-known work, Adagio for Strings, with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra, won Barber immediate national recognition. Symphony No. 2 was commissioned by the Army Air Forces while Barber served as a corporal during World War II. Three concertos for violin, violoncello, and piano reveal his grasp of instrumental idiomatic virtuosity. He also wrote ballet music for Martha Graham (Medea) and the Ballet Society (Souvenirs).
It was inevitable that Barber would turn to opera. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Vanessa, with a libretto by Menotti (1958), was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, New York City. Limited to a few roles, it is a lyrical work of passionate intensity. Following the success of Vanessa, Barber was honored by another commission, Antony and Cleopatra, adapted from Shakespeare by Franco Zeffirelli, for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, New York City, in September 1966. This opera is more complex musically and more grandiose in scope and theatricality.
It is difficult to classify Barber's style. His early works represent a conservative, traditional style based on European prototypes, and his later, more complex compositions remain outside experimental trends of the period. His structure is tonal, yet the earlier works are more simple and direct. Later works, such as Symphony No. 2, the Piano Sonata, and the Piano Concerto, another Pulitzer Prize winner, are more chromatic and dissonant. Twelve-tone serial technique is used in the Piano Sonata. Barber's instrumental works reveal traditional attitudes toward musical articulation and form. His themes are carefully molded and highly motivic. His contrapuntal texture is strong, and he used canonic, fugal, and ostinato procedures. His various settings for solo voice are very sensitive and expressive, especially in the evocation of youth. A beautiful example is Knoxville: Summer of 1915, derived from Agee's A Death in the Family. Because of his direct expressivity and warm lyricism he is generally regarded as a "neoromantic," but this is a classification of attitude rather than of style.
After a period of artistic inactivity in the 1970s, Barber returned to composing with his Third Essay for Orchestra, which was performed by the New York Philharmonic orchestra in 1980. The premier of a second new work, an oboe concerto, was planned at the time of his death, January 23, 1981, following a long illness.
A sympathetic biography and analysis of Barber's music is Nathan Broder, Samuel Barber (1954; revised, 1985). A penetrating interpretation of Barber is given by Wilfrid Mellers in Music in a New Found Land (1965). A consideration of Barber's life and career may also be found in Barbara B. Heyman, Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music (1992; reprinted, 1994). For additional information, see Don A. Hennessee, Samuel Barber: A Bio-Bibliography (1985).