Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber's music, masterfully crafted and built on romantic structures and sensibilities, is at once lyrical, rhythmically complex, and harmonically rich. Born on March 9, 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Barber wrote his first piece at age 7 and attempted his first opera at age 10. At the age of 14 he entered the Curtis Institute, where he studied voice, piano, and composition. Later, he studied conducting with Fritz Reiner. At Curtis, Barber met Gian Carlo Menotti with whom he would form a lifelong personal and professional relationship. Menotti supplied libretti for Barber's operas Vanessa (for which Barber won the Pulitzer) and A Hand of Bridge. Barber's music was championed by a remarkable range of renowned artists, musicians, and conductors including Vladimir Horowitz, John Browning, Martha Graham, Arturo Toscanini, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Jennie Tourel, and Eleanor Steber. His Antony and Cleopatra was commissioned to open the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966. Barber was the recipient of numerous awards and prizes including the American Prix de Rome, two Pulitzers, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His intensely lyrical Adagio for Strings has become one of the most recognizable and beloved compositions, both in concerts and films (Platoon, The Elephant Man, El Norte, Lorenzo's Oil.)

Barber composed a wide range of stage, orchestral, chamber, piano, choral, and vocal works in what he unassumingly insisted was a personal style "born of what I feel..I am not a self-conscious composer." His discipline and use of traditional forms earned him the reputation of a classicist. Virgil Thomson once wrote that Barber was laying to rest the ghost of Romanticism without violence, though in light of the composer's lush lyricism, deft dramatic sense, and inclination toward Romantic poetic sources (especially in his vocal writing), this comment ultimately proved to be off-mark. Throughout his catalog of works, Barber adhered stubbornly to his own inner voice–a voice rich in subtlety and sumptuousness that relied deeply on melody, polyphony, and complex musical textures–all fused with an unerring instinct for graceful proportion and an unabashed affinity for Romantic thought and emotion.

In addition to his symphonic compositions, Barber showed a particular flair in writing for both the piano and the voice. From the Brahmsian lyricism of his Interlude No. 1, composed in his Curtis days and premiered only fifty years later by John Browning, to the virtuosic, passionate, and compelling Piano Sonata, Op. 26, Barber has made landmark contributions to the keyboard repertoire. But perhaps it is as a songwriter that Barber is at his most Romantic and impassioned. A fine baritone himself, Barber's love of poetry and his intimate knowledge and appreciation of the human voice inspired all his vocal writing. While he sometimes dismissed his youthful works, Barber retained a special fondness for Dover Beach (1931)–perhaps because he had performed it often, himself, and had recorded it in 1935, but more likely because he found in it and in Arnold's poem of pessimism and stoic despair a renewed meaning.