Samuel Bar­ber is one of the most curi­ous fig­ures in twentieth-century music, some­one whose work is both cher­ished and dis­missed. His Ada­gio for Strings, which made him famous when Toscanini played it on national radio in 1938 when Bar­ber was still in his twen­ties, is one of the best-known pieces of Amer­i­can music, rec­og­nized and loved by mil­lions around the world who have never attended a sym­phony con­cert. Barber’s out­put spans vir­tu­ally all gen­res — cham­ber music, large sym­phonic works, bal­let, songs, works for a sin­gle instru­ment, choral works, even opera. His very per­sonal musi­cal lan­guage is unde­ni­ably con­tem­po­rary, but Bar­ber never lost sight of the fact that music speaks from — and to — the soul.

Yet despite the con­sis­tency and breadth of his music, and in spite of the secure place a grow­ing num­ber of his works have in the reper­tory today, some of the musi­cal estab­lish­ment con­tin­ues to be uncom­fort­able with Bar­ber. One some­times feels that the com­poser was penal­ized through­out his life for the extra­or­di­nary pop­u­lar­ity his Ada­gio for Strings achieved — as well as the fact that pop­u­lar­ity came when he was so young. In a way, Barber’s music has met with a reac­tion sim­i­lar to that some­times encoun­tered by peo­ple of great phys­i­cal beauty — on the one hand, lauded and envied by soci­ety; on the other hand, deemed shal­low or vain by the same soci­ety, and for the very qual­ity it pro­fesses to admire.

Typ­i­cal of the con­de­scend­ing view of Bar­ber is the atti­tude that Wil­frid Mellers expressed in his 1960s book Man and His Music, which men­tions with admi­ra­tion the woks of com­posers from Charles Ives to Elliott Carter and Vir­gil Thom­son and then, almost par­en­thet­i­cally, acknowl­edges Barber’s exis­tence with a sin­gle sen­tence: “Com­par­a­tively, the middle-of-the-path men, even such a excel­lent con­ser­v­a­tive musi­cian as Samuel Barber…have lit­tle vital­ity and not much social or artis­tic justification.”

One might hope that, with the renais­sance Barber’s music has enjoyed since shortly after his death in 1981, both in con­certs and on record­ings, a more bal­anced view of his true stature as a com­poser would pre­vail. But old biases die hard. Case in point: A few months ago The New Yorker pub­lished an arti­cle on the life and career of Aaron Cop­land in honor of his cen­te­nary. Though the arti­cle referred to many other com­posers with whom Cop­land inter­acted, Samuel Barber’s name was never once mentioned.

It’s very curi­ous,” says pianist John Brown­ing, who intro­duced Barber’s Piano Con­certo, and became a good friend of the com­poser. “Sam and Aaron were extremely good friends and they respected each other enor­mously, but the two camps were vio­lently opposed to each other. Both com­posers were first-class. They only lived about fif­teen min­utes from each other, they often vis­ited each other, often played their works for each others.”

In fact, Cop­land played a piv­otal role in the com­po­si­tion of Barber’s Piano Con­certo, some­thing Brown­ing still remem­bers vividly. With the work’s pre­mière only a cou­ple of weeks away, Bar­ber still had not writ­ten the final move­ment. “That’s when Aaron came over from Peek­skill, and just sat him down and yelled at him,” Brown­ing recalls. “Sam got so mad, he got up the next morn­ing and began writ­ing the last movement.”

The pre­mière of Barber’s Piano Con­certo, on Sep­tem­ber 24, 1962, was to be the com­posers “last huge, imme­di­ate suc­cess,” as Brown­ing puts it. “It got the Pulitzer right away, there was a stand­ing ova­tion at the pre­mière, it was a tremen­dous crit­i­cal suc­cess, and all the orches­tras did it immediately.”

Sid­ney Homer

Suc­cess was some­thing that seemed to come eas­ily and often to Samuel Bar­ber. He was born on March 9, 1910 in West Chester, Penn­syl­va­nia, into a fam­ily that was finan­cially and socially com­fort­able. Though his imme­di­ate fam­ily regarded music as only an inter­est­ing pas­time, his mother’s sis­ter was the great con­tralto Louise Homer. Her hus­band, Sid­ney, was a com­poser of some renown in his day, a con­tem­po­rary of Richard Strauss, whom he had known in Munich when both men were in their early twen­ties. (Sid­ney Homer had heard Strauss con­duct the pre­mière of the latter’s Aus Ital­ien in 1886.) In 1924, when it became obvi­ous that Samuel Bar­ber was deter­mined to be a musi­cian, his fam­ily sent him to the newly opened Cur­tis Insti­tute in nearby Philadel­phia, where he stud­ied piano, com­po­si­tion, con­duct­ing, and voice. Imme­di­ately, he began to attract the atten­tion of influ­en­tial peo­ple as well as superb musicians.

The first per­for­mances and record­ings of his works were led by con­duc­tors such as Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Wal­ter, Serge Kous­se­vitzky, Eugene Ormandy, Artur Rodzin­ski, and Dim­itri Mitropou­los. Vladimir Horowitz gave the pre­mière of Barber’s Piano Sonata in 1950. Singers such as Rose Bamp­ton, Eleanor Ste­ber, Leon­tyne Price, Mar­tina Arroyo, and Diet­rich Fischer-Dieskau intro­duced his vocal works. And almost from the begin­ning, Bar­ber received com­mis­sions from the most pres­ti­gious organizations.

In 1931, while still a stu­dent at Cur­tis, Bar­ber wrote his Over­ture to The School for Scan­dal—which turned out to be his grad­u­a­tion the­sis. Inspired by Richard Sheridan’s com­edy of man­ners (even as a young man Barber’s taste in lit­er­a­ture was well-developed), the piece is, by turns, ebul­lient, melt­ingly lyri­cal, and infec­tious. Audi­ences loved it. Crit­ics reacted as they would through­out Barber’s life. While admit­ted the Over­ture was “well and grace­fully writ­ten,” Olin Downes of the New York Times com­plained, “It is no more Amer­i­can than Wolf-Ferrari. It is in essence an Ital­ian com­edy overture….We do not agree with the sort of musi­cal patri­o­teer who attempts to prove that the acci­dent of birth enti­tles an indi­vid­ual of oth­er­wise mod­est claims to recog­ni­tion as an Amer­i­can com­poser. On the other hand, music that lives and says some­thing sel­dom if ever fails to sug­gest race and environment.”

John Brown­ing

The sound [of Barber’s music] is def­i­nitely an inter­na­tional sound,” John Brown­ing says. “The Cop­land sound that we think of as being so ‘Amer­i­can’ was just not in Sam’s vocab­u­lary. It wasn’t a ques­tion of him avoid­ing it, it just wasn’t in his vocabulary.”

When Bar­ber thought it appro­pri­ate, he was quite capa­ble of writ­ing music that sug­gests jazz (which he does through­out his cham­ber opera A Hand of Bridge, for instance) — just as he was capa­ble of using twelve-tone tech­niques, or any of a vari­ety of devices. But he never for­got the advice his Uncle Sid­ney gave him early in his career, to write music that “expresses the depth and sin­cer­ity of your nature…straightforward stuff, with gen­uine feel­ing in it and no arti­fi­cial pre­tense and padding.” Unfor­tu­nately, in doing that, in going his own way musi­cally, Bar­ber often found him­self at odds with musi­cal fashion.

Bar­ber was a com­poser who was really there at the wrong time,” says Tim Page, the Pulitzer Prize-winning for­mer music critic for New York News­day and the Wash­ing­ton Post. “I’ve always thought he was a deeply tal­ented, enor­mously expres­sive and, in his own sub­tle way, dis­tinctly orig­i­nal com­poser. Some peo­ple didn’t really know what to make of his opu­lence and of the tonal cen­ter of a great deal of his music. He was writ­ing music that was in oppo­si­tion to some of the crit­i­cal posi­tions of his times, and that was some­thing that was put down a great deal.”

Barber’s song cycle Her­mit Songs illus­trated Page’s point. It was writ­ten in the early 1950s, when Amer­i­can avant-garde com­posers were exper­i­ment­ing with seri­al­ism and elec­tronic music and chance music. But Bar­ber chose to set the text (by medieval reli­gious schol­ars) in a sim­ple, con­ser­v­a­tive way that seemed to fly in the face of what many of his con­tem­po­raries were doing. Her­mit Songs cre­ates an entire uni­verse in only ten songs, and today it is con­sid­ered one of the mas­ter­pieces of Amer­i­can song lit­er­a­ture. The pre­mière, at the Library of Con­gress on Octo­ber 30, 1953, with the com­poser at the piano and a young soprano named Leon­tyne Price, attracted favor­able atten­tion. (The con­cert was recorded and is avail­able on CD).

Leon­tyne Price and Samuel Barber

A few months later, Bar­ber and Price repeated their per­for­mance at a con­fer­ence of twentieth-century music in Rome, an event orga­nized by Nicholas Nabokov. “How Samuel Bar­ber came to be invited is anyone’s guess,” the com­poser Ned Rorem has writ­ten of that con­fer­ence. “Yet sud­denly one Tues­day, when we had grown bug-eyed at the grav­ity of it all, onto the stage came Sam to accom­pany the unknown Leon­tyne Price, every inch a diva with her azure sequins, in the Her­mit Songs. From the first bars of ‘At Saint Patrick’s Pur­ga­tory’ the all-knowing audi­ence exchanged glances: you don’t com­pose trash like this anymore….But when the hit song, ‘The Monk and His Cat,’ came around there were audi­ble hisses, and the close of the cycle brought loud boos mixed with furtive cheers.”

The San Fran­cisco Symphony’s Michael Stein­berg, who was then a stringer for the New York Times and cov­ered the Rome con­fer­ence, remem­bers it dif­fer­ently. “The Her­mit Songs were warmly received,” he says, and he recalls meet­ing Bar­ber shortly after­ward and hear­ing the com­poser speak with plea­sure of the cycle’s reception.

Barber’s innate sense of lyri­cism, cou­pled with his love of lit­er­a­ture and the fact that he him­self trained as a singer (his won­der­ful 1935 record­ing of his own Dover Beach is avail­able on CD), give his songs the cen­tral place among his works.  Again and again through­out his life, Bar­ber returned to the song form, as if to his touch­stone. In fact, when he wrote for indi­vid­ual instru­ments in the orches­tra, it was often with the same sense of nat­ural, unend­ing melody found in his songs. “Bar­ber always thought lyri­cally, while not dis­miss­ing — by any means — thoughts of har­mony and orches­tra­tion and sound,” says Tim Page. “He could come up with really com­pli­cated coun­ter­point. He was a firm believer in good, solid tech­nique, and his own tech­nique was extra­or­di­nary. The orches­tra­tion was true, and the melodies were good and strong.”

His ideal was Bach,” John Brown­ing adds. “He spent an hour a day, every day of his life, study­ing Bach. He wrote coun­ter­point so nat­u­rally — he prob­a­bly had the great­est ease in coun­ter­point since Brahms. He was cer­tainly in full com­mand of orches­tra­tion — he wrote to the max­i­mum for every instru­ment. He used to say to me, ‘If you write too eas­ily for an instru­ment they get bored and they won’t play it.’ He was in full com­mand of form, full com­mand of melody. The har­monic lan­guage was superb. The depth was there. The humor is there. The melan­choly is there, too — Sam always had a streak of melan­choly. Some peo­ple might feel the emo­tional gamut extremely com­pli­cated in its many nuances, But it works for me.”

Mar­tina Arroyo

Barber’s emo­tional lan­guage works for many peo­ple, in part because he knew exactly what he wanted to say and what was impor­tant about a work. Soprano Mar­tina Arroyo remem­bers Bar­ber was “very, very con­cerned about the drama, about the emo­tion.” Bar­ber chose Arroyo to intro­duce his 1963 Andromache’s Farewell, a work for soprano and orches­tra com­mis­sioned by the New York Phil­har­monic for its open­ing sea­son at Lin­coln Cen­ter. Some of the mea­sures in Andro­mache’s vocal line are rhyth­mi­cally quite intri­cate, and when Arroyo took spe­cial care to get the rhythm exact, “Bar­ber would say, ‘Lis­ten, I don’t care about the rhythm as much as I want you to have the anger here.’ Bar­ber wrote beau­ti­fully for the voice. The inter­vals can be dif­fi­cult, espe­cially in Antony and Cleopa­tra, but he didn’t ask for any­thing that was impos­si­ble. You just have to know how to sing. It’s all in the music. You don’t have to put any­thing else into it. Just sing it with hon­esty and sin­cer­ity and the sense of drama.”

Andromache’s Farewell is Barber’s Opus 39. Opus 40 is Antony and Cleopa­tra, the opera writ­ten to open the Met’s new home at Lin­coln Cen­ter in 1966. As Bar­bara Hey­man puts it in her biog­ra­phy of the com­poser, “The com­mis­sion that was one of the great­est trib­utes to Barber’s whole career turned out, iron­i­cally, to be his neme­sis…. [It] was the mon­u­men­tal mis­for­tune of Barber’s career.” Bar­ber had had dis­ap­point­ments before, but Antony and Cleopa­tra was dif­fer­ent. It brought Bar­ber a high-profile crit­i­cal trounc­ing that, in ret­ro­spect, he did not entirely deserve. (A later reworked ver­sion of Antony and Cleopa­tra has been per­formed by sev­eral dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies, most notably, per­haps, by the Lyric Opera of Chicago dur­ing the 1991 – 92 sea­son, when it was also tele­cast on PBS.) Even at the opera’s pre­mière, every­one agreed a major prob­lem was Franco Zeffirelli’s heavy-handed pro­duc­tion, which swamped the work. And in all prob­a­bil­ity noth­ing could have stood up to the celebrity-studded, glit­ter­ing social occa­sion of the open­ing of the new Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House. But the reviews were sav­age and seemed to affect Bar­ber more deeply than had other neg­a­tive reviews.

Bar­ber and Menotti

What many peo­ple did not real­ize was that Barber’s per­sonal life was under­go­ing pro­found changes as well. In the fall of 1928, he had met a fel­low Cur­tis stu­dent from Milan named Gian Carlo Menotti, and the two men had become part­ners. In Mt. Kisko, New York, they had bought a house named Capri­corn, which Bar­ber loved deeply. When the cou­ple split, Bar­ber felt he could not afford to keep up the house, so Capri­corn was put up for sale. “Antony and Cleopa­tra came at the same time that Sam and Gian Carlo were split­ting up and Capri­corn was being sold. It all hit at once,” says John Brown­ing. It seems Bar­ber never fully recovered.

Bar­ber had long planned at trip to Italy after Antony and Cleopa­tra’s pre­mière. He ended up build­ing a house in the Dolomites, where he spent most of his time for the next sev­eral years. He began turn­ing down com­mis­sions, telling Eugene Ormandy he was plan­ning to write only music he wanted to, even if it was “forty-eight pre­ludes and fugues for pic­colo.” The music he wanted to com­pose — not sur­pris­ingly — was mostly songs, though in 1971 he returned to work­ing on a large scale again with The Lovers, a set­ting of some Pablo Neruda poems for mix cho­rus, bari­tone, soprano, and orchestra.

In 1978, Barber’s Third Essay for Orches­tra was pre­miered by Zubin Mehta in his first con­cert as Music Direc­tor for the New York Phil­har­monic. It was a heart­break­ing occa­sion for the composer’s fans, a regret­table shadow of the astound­ing work Bar­ber had done in both his First and Sec­ond Essays. These one-movement orches­tral pieces, hybrids that are both tone poems and “mini-symphony,” had been impor­tant parts of Barber’s out­put. But in the Third Essay, the ten­sile, mas­cu­line rhythms that gave the ear­lier Essays such propul­sive energy had become noisy clat­ter­ing, and the surg­ing melodic sweeps had degen­er­ated into taw­dri­ness and sen­ti­men­tal­ity. Through­out his life, Samuel Bar­ber had never stepped over the bound­ary of good taste — until now.

Young Sam Barber

Musi­cally, Bar­ber was never ashamed of emo­tion. Whether it was the sim­ple nos­tal­gia of Knoxville: Sum­mer of 1915, the jux­ta­po­si­tion of sad­ness and jaun­ti­ness that makes his wood­wind quin­tet Sum­mer Music so intensely mov­ing, the stark alone­ness of the end of the First Essay for Orches­tra, the awe and mys­tery that so per­me­ate his choral work Prayers of Kierkegaard, the psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ment in Medea’s Dance of Vengeance, or the humor laced with rem­i­nis­cence in Sou­venirs, Bar­ber always seemed to know exactly how far the emo­tion should go. Even in the juicy deca­dence of Cleopatra’s death scene, “Give Me My Robe,” from Antony and Cleopa­tra, with its entwin­ing of reful­gent erotic long­ing and death, Bar­ber remained true to his credo of writ­ing music that “expresses…depth and sincerity…straightforward stuff, with gen­uine feel­ing.” And in his late song cycles “Despite and Still” (1968 – 69) and “Three Songs” (1972), Bar­ber con­tin­ued to show what a mas­ter­ful com­poser he was when using inti­mate forms, set­ting the words with decep­tively sim­ply clar­ity that, in the  process, presents the emo­tions honestly.

Bar­ber died of can­cer of the lym­phatic sys­tem, on Jan­u­ary 21, 1981. Since his death, the enor­mous — and imme­di­ate — expres­sive power of his music has been co-opted by Hol­ly­wood and Madi­son Avenue for use in films and tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials. The Ada­gio for Strings has been heard in Pla­toon and as back­ground to per­fume ads. A clas­si­cal record label devoted an entire com­pact disc to dif­fer­ent (and often ques­tion­able) arrange­ments of the Ada­gio. But even when played by a brass band, or flute and syn­the­siz­ers, or a choir of clar­inets, the hon­est pro­fun­dity of Samuel Barber’s music can­not be destroyed. If, dur­ing his life­time, Bar­ber was some­times penal­ized for what his music was not, today we have the lux­ury of appre­ci­at­ing that same music for what it is: “straight for­ward stuff, with gen­uine feeling.”

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the Feb­ru­ary 2000 pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here by per­mis­sion.

Photo Credit: Her­bert List/Magnum Pho­tos. The stun­ning pho­to­graph of Samuel Bar­ber at the top of the arti­cle is by Her­bert List. It was taken in 1954 at the Amer­i­can Acad­emy in Rome, Italy.