Born Samuel Osborne Barber II on March 9, 1910, in West Chester, PA; died on January 23, 1981, in New York, NY; son of Marguerite McLeod Beatty and Samuel Leroy Barber. Education: Studied under Isabelle Vengerova, Emilio de Gogorza, and Rosario Scalero; Bachelor of Music degree, Curtis Institute of Music, 1934. Memberships: National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1941; American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1958.

Samuel Barber is regarded as one of the most distinguished composers to emerge in twentieth-century America. His talent was recognized early, and he proved to be a precocious student during his years at the Curtis Institute during the mid-1920s. Later, during the course of his lengthy career, he composed 48 opus-length works. Barber, who is generally regarded as a neo-Romantic composer, is admired for an extremely lyrical quality that permeates his compositions, works that are also characterized by a high degree of tonality. Barber wrote 103 songs in addition to his major compositions and received recognition repeatedly during a career that produced two Pulitzer Prize-winning works. Composed in 1936, Adagio for Strings is among Barber's best-known compositions. He was a member of both the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Samuel Osborne Barber II was born on March 9, 1910, to a well-educated, middle-class family in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was the elder of two children and the only son of Marguerite McLeod Beatty and her physician husband, Samuel Leroy Barber. Barber, who was named for his paternal grandfather, came by his musical talent from his mother's family. From an early age, Barber was exposed to the culture of professional musicians. Most notably, his composer uncle Sidney Homer, and Homer's wife, Louise, who was a performer with the Metropolitan Opera, served as mentors.

Barber began his musical studies with piano lessons at age six and composed his first piece of music one year later. His mother, who was a pianist, took it upon herself to record her young son's compositions in manuscript format. By the age of ten, Barber had undertaken the daunting task of composing an opera. The work, called the Rose Tree, was based on a libretto which was supplied by the family's cook. Although Barber never completed the work, the score remains a testament to his prodigy.

Completed First Orchestral Composition

As a teenager, Barber attended at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he studied piano, voice, and composition beginning in 1924. Prior to his enrollment at Curtis, Barber had studied organ from age eleven and played for services at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in his hometown. In addition to his bent for piano and organ, Barber was a talented baritone. During his years at Curtis, he distinguished himself most notably as a student of composition under Rosario Scalero. Scalero, who recognized Barber's genius very quickly, worked with Barber for nine years. By 1931 Barber had completed his first orchestral composition, Overture to the School for Scandal. The following year he left the institute to work as a composer, subsidizing his early career through singing and teaching. Additionally, he completed his studies and graduated in 1934 with a bachelor's degree in music.

Throughout his professional career, Barber's private life sometimes caused scandal because of an intimate living relationship he maintained with fellow musician Gian Carlo Menotti. The close personal friendship between the two men began when they were students at the Curtis Institute. Menotti lived for a time at the Barber household, and Barber traveled with Menotti on numerous occasions to Milan, Italy, to visit with Menotti's family. Furthermore, Barber lived much of his adult life in New York City, sharing living quarters with Menotti. Likewise, Barber spent 12 years in the close companionship of Valentin Herranz, which gave further credence to already existing notions of Barber's rumored homosexuality and caused continual dismay among the less politically correct art patrons of Barber's era.

Professional Prominence

Barber's first major orchestral work, Overture to the School for Scandal, received its world premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra under conductor Alexander Smallens in 1933. In 1935-36 Barber received an extended Pulitzer traveling scholarship and thereafter supported himself largely by means of fellowship grants and by composing works on commission. Also in 1935 Barber won the Prix de Rome and spent some years at the American Academy in Rome in fulfillment of the prize. Barber was commissioned to write his Symphony No. 2 by the Army Air Forces while serving as a corporal during World War II. He taught briefly at the Curtis Institute, collected royalties for his works, and received Guggenheim Fellowships in 1945, 1947, and again in 1949. In 1946 he accepted a commission to compose a ballet score for Martha Graham's planned presentation of Medea. After completing that project, entitled Cave of the Heart, Barber subsequently expanded the original ballet music into seven movements for full orchestra in 1947. He reworked the score a second time in 1955, resulting in a single full-length movement called Medea's Dance of Vengeance. In 1949 Barber accepted a commission to compose a work for piano to be performed by Vladimir Horowitz in celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the League of Composers.

Barber's work, which is most memorable for its extremely lyrical quality, includes 103 solo songs. In many instances, the composer took his inspiration from literary illusion, turning to the celebrated Anglo-Saxon poets--James Agee, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and others--for text and inspiration in composing his songs. Among his more popular lyrical works, Barber's Hermit Songs were taken from works of Irish poetry which he adapted to music for the American soprano Leontyne Price. Hermit Songs marked the first in an ongoing series of collaborations between Barber and Price that began with Price's Hermit Songs concert in 1953 and endured for two decades. In 1966, on commission for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at the Lincoln Center in New York City, Barber wrote the opera Antony and Cleopatra with Price earmarked for the starring role of Cleopatra. That work featured an original libretto by Franco Zeffirelli, although much of the premiere production was flawed. Barber later rewrote the work in collaboration with Menotti.

Pulitzer Prize Winner

In 1958 the Metropolitan Opera produced Barber's opera, Vanessa, a highly successful work featuring Menotti's libretto. That work won the first of two Pulitzer Prizes for Barber. He won a second Pulitzer along with a Music Critics Circle Award in 1962 for Piano Concerto No. 1, which had its premiere at the Avery Fisher Music Hall (then Philharmonic Hall) at the Lincoln Center.

Barber's most celebrated work is the Adagio for Strings, which he composed when he was newly out of the Curtis Institute. The composition was performed along with Barber's Essay for Orchestra in a world premiere by the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1938 under conductor Arturo Toscanini. The Adagio was heard prominently once again in 1945 at the funeral of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was heard thereafter on many momentous and somber occasions, including the funerals of physicist Albert Einstein in 1955 and Princess Grace of Monaco in 1982.

Although the Adagio was not included among the selections at Barber's own funeral, he was nonetheless serenaded with his own music for several months by a stream of his friends and colleagues as he lay on his deathbed, terminally ill from cancer. He died on January 23, 1981, in New York City.

by Gloria Cooksey

Samuel Barber's Career

Composed first orchestral piece, 1931; wrote commissioned works for U.S. Army Air Forces, Martha Graham, Vladimir Horowitz, New York Metropolitan Opera; composed 103 songs, 48 opuses; published exclusively with G. Schirmer, Inc.; over 100 unpublished compositions.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

Very complete biographical info and works listing. The only change I would make would be to add Barbara Heyman's excellent biography to the books list.