Samuel Barber


Samuel Osmond Barber II (March 9, 1910 – January 23, 1981) was an American composer of orchestral, opera, choral, and piano music. He is one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century; music critic Donal Henahan stated, "Probably no other American composer has ever enjoyed such early, such persistent and such long-lasting acclaim."


His Adagio for Strings (1936) has earned a permanent place in the concert repertory of orchestras. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music twice: for his opera Vanessa (1956–57) and for the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1962). At the time of Barber's death, nearly all of his compositions had been recorded.


Barber was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the son of Marguerite McLeod and Samuel Le Roy Barber. He was born into a comfortable, educated, social, and distinguished American family. His father was a physician; his mother was a pianist of English-Scottish-Irish descent whose family had lived in the United States since the time of the American Revolutionary War. His maternal aunt, Louise Homer, was a leading contralto at the Metropolitan Opera; his uncle, Sidney Homer, was a composer of American art songs. Louise Homer is known to have influenced Barber's interest in voice. Through his aunt, Barber was introduced to many great singers and songs.


At a very early age, Barber became profoundly interested in music, and it was apparent that he had great musical talent and ability. He began studying the piano at the age of six and at age seven composed his first work, Sadness, a 23-measure solo piano piece in C minor. Despite Barber's interest in music, his family wanted him to become a typical extroverted, athletic American boy. This meant, in particular, they encouraged his playing football. However, Barber was in no way a typical boy, and at the age of nine he wrote to his mother:


Dear Mother: I have written this to tell you my worrying secret. Now don't cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now without any nonsense. To begin with I was not meant to be an athlete. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I'm sure. I'll ask you one more thing.—Don't ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football.—Please—Sometimes I've been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very).


Barber attempted to write his first opera, entitled The Rose Tree, at the age of 10. At the age of 12, he became an organist at a local church. When he was 14, he enrolled in and subsequently graduated from West Chester High School (now West Chester Henderson High School), later composing the school's alma mater. Also at the age of 14, he entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied piano with Isabelle Vengerova, composition with Rosario Scalero and George Frederick Boyle, and voice with Emilio de Gogorza. He began composing seriously in his late teenage years.


Around the same time, he met fellow Curtis schoolmate Gian Carlo Menotti, who became his partner in life as well as in their shared profession. At the Curtis Institute, Barber was a triple prodigy in composition, voice, and piano. He soon became a favorite of the conservatory's founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok. It was through Mrs. Bok that Barber was introduced to his lifelong publishers, the Schirmer family. At the age of 18, Barber won the Joseph H. Bearns Prize from Columbia University for his violin sonata (now lost or destroyed by the composer).


In 1938, when Barber was 28, his Adagio for Strings was performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arturo Toscanini, along with his first Essay for Orchestra. The Adagio had been arranged from the slow movement of Barber's String Quartet, Op. 11. Toscanini had rarely performed music by American composers before. At the end of the first rehearsal of the piece, Toscanini remarked, "Semplice e bella" (simple and beautiful).


In 1943, Barber and Menotti purchased a house in suburban Mount Kisco, New York, north of Manhattan, which served as their artistic retreat.


Barber reached the peak of his popularity when in 1949 Vladimir Horowitz premiered the highly virtuosic Piano Sonata, proclaiming it to be “the first truly great native work in the form”. Barber's other works for the piano include the Nocturne (Homage to John Field) of 1959 and the beautiful Excursions, Op. 20 (1942-44). He also wrote a piano concerto in 1960, which won him a Pulitzer Prize.


After the harsh rejection of his third opera Antony and Cleopatra, Barber left the United States and spent a number of years in seclusion in Europe, a period also marked by his estrangement from Menotti. After this setback, Barber continued to write music until he was almost 70 years old. The Third Essay for orchestra (1978) was his last major work. He suffered from depression and alcoholism during these years.


Barber died of cancer on January 23, 1981, at his 907 Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan at the age of 70.


Selected Performances


Petite Berceuse (1923): A lovely little dreamy gem. The piece is even more impressive when you realize it was written in 1923, when Barber was only 13 years old.


Locating The Music


Samuel Barber's complete piano music is available from Amazon.


Compositions for Piano


Sadness (1917)

Melody in F (1917)

Largo (1918)

War Song (1918)

At Twilight (1919)

Lullaby (1919)

Petite Berceuse (1923)

3 Sketches (1923-24)

Fantasie (1924)

Prelude to a Tragic Drama (1925)

Fresh from West Chester (1925-26)

Essay III (1926)

Interlude No. 1 (1931)

Interlude No. 2 (1932)

Excursions (1944)

Piano Sonata (1948)

Souvenirs (1953)

Nocturne (1959)

After the Concert (1960s)

Ballade (1977)