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.