Childhood & Early Life
Samuel Osborne Barber II was born on March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His father Samuel Le Roy Barber, a physician by profession, was the president and treasurer of the Board of Trustee of the First Presbyterian Church and the president of West Chester School Board.
His mother Marguerite McLeod née Beatty was an accomplished pianist. Samuel was born elder of his parents’ two children. He had a younger sister called Sarah who was three years his junior. He dedicated many of his earliest songs to her. Later, he had said that Sarah understood him better than his parents did.
From an early age, Samuel showed a great interest in music. He started learning piano at the age of six, possibly with his mother, inventing melodies from the very beginning, making his mother justly proud.
Between July and December 1917, Samuel wrote three compositions. Among them, ‘Sadness in C minor’ for piano was his first work. Another work, ‘Melody in F,’ was also composed for piano. The third was a song called ‘Some Time’, on a text by Eugene Field, which he dedicated to his mother.
Since his mother was averse to male pianists, Samuel began his professional music lessons by studying cello. But he continued to teach himself piano and by 1919, he had written a number of pieces for voice and piano. Among them, ‘Isabel’ set on J. G. Whittier’s poem, was quiet sophisticated.
In 1919, his parents engaged William Hatton Green, the best piano teacher they could find, to teach him the piano. However, his father, who expected him to go to the ‘Princeton University’ and become a doctor one day, wanted him to show more interest in other activities, including sports.
His father’s attitude made Samuel worried. At the age of nine, he wrote to his mother, “…I was not meant to be an athlete. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I'm sure…. Don't ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football.”
From 1919 onwards, he began to participate in recitals with Green’s other students, sometimes playing his own works. At one such recital on 7 April 1920, he not only played duets and solo piano pieces by Bach, Clementi and Beethoven, but also his own compositions like ‘At Twilight’ and ‘Lullaby’.
Possibly in 1920, at the age of 10, he started writing an opera, which he named ‘The Rose Tree’, on a libretto supplied by the family’s Irish cook, Annie Sullivan Brosius Noble. However, he never finished it.
By the age of 11, Barber started learning the pipe organ, showing proficiency in playing the instrument at the First Presbyterian Church. At 12, he became the organist at the Westminster Church, earning $100 a month. Concurrently, he continued to compose, dedicating ‘Sacred Solo’ to one Mrs. Husted.
In his early years, his maternal aunt, opera singer Louise Homer, and her composer husband, Sydney Homer, also played an important role in his music training. Their home at Homeland on Lake George was like an oasis to him, where he often spent his summers, reviewing his works with them.
In spite of his single-minded devotion to music, he turned out to be an outstanding student at school, excelling in many extracurricular activities. He was a member of the school’s Latin and French clubs, the president of music and drama clubs and literary editor for the quarterly year book.
By 1924, his parents realized that it was impossible to divert him from his goal. Therefore, they agreed to let him study at the newly opened Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia while he was continuing his high school studies in West Chester.
Barber was at Curtis for nine years, studying piano with Isabelle Vengerova; composition with Rosario Scalero and George Frederick Boyle; and voice with Emilio de Gogorza. Very soon, he became a favorite of the conservatory's founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, who introduced him to his lifelong publishers, the Schirmer family.
During the summer of 1928, he traveled to Europe, where he met many well-known music teachers and attended a number of concerts and operas, imbibing a lot from them. The trip awakened in him a love for the European culture, which made him return to the continent very often after that.
In 1931, while he was still a student at Curtis, he completed his first full orchestra. Entitled ‘Overture to the School for Scandal’, it was premiered two years later, on August 30, 1933, by Philadelphia Orchestra. Meanwhile in 1934, he graduated from Curtis and devoted himself entirely to composition.
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In 1934, soon after his graduation, Samuel Barber once again travelled to Europe. While there, he wrote ‘Sonata for Violoncello and Piano’ in C minor. It officially premiered on 5 March 1933 in New York, with him on the piano.
In the summer of 1933, he once again traveled to Europe. During his stay in Italy, he wrote ‘Music for a Scene from Shelley’, which was partly inspired by Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’ and partly by the view of Lake Lugano. The work was premiered in New York on March 24, 1935.
In 1935-1936, Barber received an extended Pulitzer traveling scholarship, which enabled him to travel to Europe. Also in 1935, he won the Rome Prize, the American version of Prix de Rome, which allowed him to spend a few years at the American Academy in Rome.
His next important work ‘Symphony in One Movement’ was completed 24 February 1936 and was premiered by Rome's Philharmonic Augusteo Orchestra on 13 December 1936. Meanwhile in the summer, he wrote ‘Adagio for Strings’, one of his best known works, for string orchestra.
Possibly in 1937, Arturo Toscanini told Barber that he would like to play one of his works, prompting Barber to write ‘The First Essay for Orchestra’. In the spring of 1938, he submitted the work to Toscanini along with the score of ‘Adagio for Strings’.
On November 5, 1938, Toscanini performed both the works, an event that marked the launch of Barber’s career internationally. Thereafter, he began supporting himself by composing works on commission. He wrote ‘Violin Concerto’ in 1939 for Samuel Simeon Fels, an industrialist from Philadelphia.
In 1942, Barber revised his First Symphony and wrote ‘The Second Essay on Orchestra’. The latter was premiered by the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra on 16 April 1942. In the same year, he joined the Army Air Corps as part of his obligatory war service, but was granted freedom to compose.
In 1943, Barber was commissioned by the Army to write ‘Symphony Dedicated to the Air Forces’. It was premiered in early 1944 by Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. ‘Excursions’ (1942–44), ‘Capricorn Concerto’ (1944) and ‘Cello Concerto’ (1945) are some of his major works of this period.
After the war, he briefly taught at the Curtis Institute of Music; but possibly left it shortly after receiving the Guggenheim Fellowships in 1946. Also in the same year, commissioned by the Ditson Fund of the Columbia University, he wrote his first ballet, ‘Medea’.
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Writing on commission, Barber continued to produce many masterpieces, such as 'Knoxville: Summer of 1915' (1948), 'Sonata for Piano' (1949), 'Hermit Songs' (1953), 'Prayers of Kierkegaard' (1954) and 'Summer Music for Wind Quintet' (1956). Thereafter, he started writing his first opera, ‘Vanessa’.
Composed in 1956-1957 to the libretto by Gian-Carlo Menotti and premiered on January 15, 1958, under the baton of Dimitri Mitropoulos, ‘Vanessa’ was an instant success both with the audience and the critics. In 1964, he revised this work, reducing the number of acts from four to three.
His second opera, ‘Hand of Bridge’, premiered on June 17, 1959, at the Festival of Two Worlds, Spoleto, was also quite successful. But his third opera ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ was a total failure.
Commissioned for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ was first performed on September 16, 1966. But due to “inflated production with problematic technical apparatus, gaudy costumes, overcrowded stage forces,” it failed to evoke enthusiasm among the audience.
The failure of ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’ pushed Barber into depression, and he began to drink heavily. However, he continued to write, revising the opera in 1975. The new version was premiered on February 6, 1975, in the USA. Its concert version premiered in Paris in 1980.
His last major work ‘Third Essay’ was written in the summer of 1978 while he was staying in Italy. He completed the score in the third week of August, and the premiere took place on September 14 of the same year by New York Philharmonic under the baton of Zubin Mehta.
Awards & Achievements
In 1937, Samuel Barber received the Rome Prize, an award given annually by the American Academy in Rome.
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He was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music. In 1958, he received the prize for his first opera ‘Vanessa’ and then in 1963, he was given it for his ‘Concerto for Piano and Orchestra’. Also in 1958, he was awarded the Henry Hadley Medal by the National Association for American Composers and Conductors.
In 1980, he received Edward MacDowell Medal for his outstanding contribution to the arts by the MacDowell Colony.
He received the Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship for 1935-36 and Guggenheim Fellowships for 1945, 1947 and 1949.
He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1941; the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1958; the American Academy of Arts and Science in 1961.
In 1959, he received an honorary doctorate from the Harvard University.
Family & Personal Life
Samuel Barber maintained a long-term relationship with Gian Carlo Menotti, an Italian-American composer and librettist. They met while they were studying at the Curtis Institute of Music. Later, they shared a living quarter in New York. At a time, when homosexuality was looked down upon, the relationship caused quite a scandal.
For around 12 years, Barber also maintained a close relationship with Valentin Herranz. It further gave rise to the speculation that he was gay, much to the dismay of many of his patrons.
He died of cancer on January 23, 1981, in New York City at the age of 70. Later, his mortal remains were taken to his hometown in West Chester, where he was buried in Oaklands Cemetery. He was survived by his brother-in-law and an array of cousins, nephews and nieces.