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.”
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.”
“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).
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.”
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.
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.
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.