Samuel Barber was a singer. When he was growing up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, he was impressed by the glamour surrounding his aunt Louise Homer, a leading operatic contralto of the era. As a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, he took voice lessons alongside his studies in piano and composition. He made the first recording of one of his earliest published works, his haunting setting of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach for voice and string quartet. Although this singing career did not last long, he retained a feeling for vocal writing and his works are equally full of lyrical, singable melodies.
If this emphasis on lyricism increasingly set Barber apart from the modernist movements of the mid-20th century, so too did his education, which was firmly grounded in the conservative European tradition. At the Curtis Institute, he was given a rigorous training in composition by Rosario Scalero. And at 18, he made the first of many trips to Europe, not only soaking up musical impressions but also becoming fluent in several languages. For the rest of his life, he would spend a large proportion of his time in Europe.
It was in Europe that Barber wrote some of his most successful early works. The single-movement First Symphony was begun in 1935. Premiered in Rome, it was later the first American work to be performed at the Salzburg Festival. And the String Quartet which he wrote at St Wolfgang in the Austrian Tyrol in the summer of 1936 was the source of the elegiac Adagio for strings which remains Barber’s most popular piece. In its orchestral guise, it received its first performance in New York in 1938 alongside the First Essay for orchestra, under the baton of the celebrated Arturo Toscanini.
This double premiere marked Barber’s breakthrough before the age of 30. After that, although he taught and conducted a choir at Curtis for several years, he was able to support himself chiefly through commissions, performances and publications. His next major work was the Violin Concerto, in which two expansively lyrical movements are followed by a short, fast, virtuoso finale. The Concerto was followed by the Second Essay for orchestra, longer and more varied than the First but similarly a kind of abstract symphonic poem.
By the time the Second Essay was completed and performed in 1942, the USA was at war. Barber was drafted into the US Army, but found sympathetic patrons in the hierarchy who had him transferred to the Army Air Corps and allowed him time to write a Second Symphony, originally to be called ‘Flight Symphony’. He later withdrew it but did salvage the second of the three movements as an independent tone poem called Night Flight. Also during the war, Barber composed the neo-classical Capricorn Concerto for three wind instruments and strings. It is named after Capricorn, the country house in New York State which Barber shared for many years with opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti.
In the years after the war, Barber expanded his expressive range in a series of works for various forces. The Cello Concerto is lucid and lithe, with a solo part which is one of the most demanding in the repertoire. A ballet on the subject of Medea, written for Martha Graham, later yielded one of his most powerful concert works, Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. In complete contrast is Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a scena for soprano and orchestra on James Agee’s recollections in poetic prose of his small-town childhood, set without obvious American idioms but with touching simplicity. Then at the end of the 1940s came the brilliant Piano Sonata, championed by Vladimir Horowitz.
The roll-call of masterworks continues into the 1950s with the Hermit Songs, the most substantial of Barber’s many song-cycles, the austere cantata Prayers of Kierkegaard, and the mercurial single-movement Summer Music for wind quintet. And in 1962 came Barber’s Piano Concerto, commissioned for the opening week of New York’s Lincoln Center. The success of its premiere was, in the words of his biographer Barbara B Heyman, ‘the highpoint in Barber’s career’.
By this time, after spending many years searching for the right libretto, Barber had entered the world of opera with Vanessa, premiered at the Met in 1958. With an original libretto by Menotti set in a country house in northern Europe, it offers subtle and penetrating studies of its principal characters, and moves with a sure sense of both musical coherence and dramatic effect.
The initial success of Vanessa led to a commission for another work to open the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966, but the result, Antony and Cleopatra, was a flop. Most of the blame has been aimed at the librettist and director Franco Zeffirelli – his lavish adaptation of Shakespeare’s play left too little room for Barber’s lyricism. Even in Barber’s later revision, the work has not yet found a place in the regular repertoire.
Barber’s last years saw a sad personal decline. Depressed by the failure of Antony and Cleopatra, by a split with Menotti, and by the consequent sale of his beloved house, Capricorn, he succumbed to alcoholism and cancer. But he succeeded in completing several notable works, including a Third Essay for orchestra and the cantata The Lovers, a personal setting of erotic poems by Pablo Neruda. At the time of his death in January 1981, he was working on an oboe concerto, but had written only most of the slow movement – significantly entitled ‘Canzonetta’, or ‘little song’.
Composer Aaron Copland described his music as ‘expert, high-toned and serious’, and said that the Adagio came ‘straight from the heart’. Barber himself, late in life, put it very simply: ‘I think that what’s been holding composers back a great deal is that they feel they must have a new style every year. That, in my case, would be hopeless… I just go on doing, as they say, my thing. I believe this takes a certain courage.’