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Samuel Barber is noted for his lyrical, elegiac, expressive musical language, full of long-lined melodies, flavoured with modernism whilst preserving a connection with the 19th century. He was one of the most widely performed American composers in Europe and the Americas during the 20th century. As the prolific 20th century music critic Donal Henehan put it: "Probably no other American composer has ever enjoyed such early, such persistent and such long-lasting acclaim."
Barber was born in 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania to a well-educated family. His father was a physician and his mother a pianist. It was through his aunt and uncle that he received his earliest musical influences: his aunt Louise Homer was a leading contralto in the Metropolitan Opera. Through his aunt, he had access to an abundant supply of vocal repertoire. His uncle Sidney Homer was a composer and was a great mentor for Barber for over 25 years, strongly influencing the young composer’s aesthetic principles. Barber developed a profound interest in music and displayed great skill and ability at the piano from the age of 6. He composed his first piece aged 7, entitledSadness , a 23-bar solo piano piece in C minor. He attempted to compose his first opera, The Rose Tree at the age of 10. When he was 14 he entered the newly established Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied piano, composition and singing, and showed prodigious talent in all three disciplines. He was a highly respected student at the institute and its founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok provided him with financial aid and introduced him to his future publishers, the Schirmer family. It was during his teenage years at the Curtis Institute that Barber met Gian Carlo Menotti, his lifelong partner.
At 18 years of age, Barber won the Joseph H. Bearns Prize from Columbia University for his violin sonata, which has since been lost. Three years later, he won the prize again, this time for his overture toThe School of Scandal, his first large-scale orchestral work to be published.
Barber had a great feeling for European culture, intensifying this affinity after numerous extensive periods in Italy and Vienna. After graduating from the Curtis Institute he enjoyed a brief career as a baritone, singing on the NBC Music Guild series where he was critically acclaimed, winning a contract for a series of weekly song broadcasts in 1935. Barber had a distinctly intuitive flair for and understanding of the voice – by the end of his career, vocal repertoire would make up two-thirds of his compositions.
His Symphony in One Movement (1936) was performed in Rome, Cleveland and New York almost immediately following its completion and it was the first symphonic work by an American composer to be performed at the Salzburg Festival. The eminent conductor Toscanini conducted Barber's Essay for Orchestra and his Adagio for Strings with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1938. From that point on, his stature as a significant composer was established, and his works were composed on commission for important performers and ensembles.
In 1939, Barber completed his Violin Concerto, commissioned by the Philadelphia industrialist Samuel Simeon Fels, to be performed the the violinist Iso Briselli who had studied at the Curtis Institute around the same time as Barber. In the same year, Barber began teaching composition at the Curtis Institute until 1942. From 1942 to 1945, Barber served in the US army airforce. In 1943, Mary Louise Curtis Bok aided Barber and Menotti in purchasing a house in Mount Kisco, New York. The house was a place of solace for Barber’s composing, leading to his most productive years. The house also served as a gathering place for many musicians, artists and intellectuals.
Barber received a commission from the army airforce to compose his Second Symphony, which was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the conductor Serge Koussevitsky. He composed his Cello Concerto for Raya Garbousova, who premiered the work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on 5 April 1946. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the League of Composers, Irving Berlin and Richard Rogers commissioned Barber to compose the Piano Sonata. The sonata was performed by Vladimir Horovitz and its instant critical success was followed by many performances within the first year of its premiere.
He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1958 for his opera Vanessa. It was staged for the Metropolitan Opera for its premiere in 1958 and later that year at the Salzburg Festival, the first ever American opera to be produced at there. Barber was commissioned to compose three works for the opening of the Lincoln Centre in New York: thePiano Concerto, which won him another Pulitzer Prize, Andromanche’s Farewell and the opera Antony and Cleopatra.
Alcoholism and depression marked Barber's final years. He suffered from cancer from 1978 onwards. Nevertheless, he continued to compose mostly vocal music, most notably the cantataThe Lovers. His last composition, a movement of what would have been an oboe concerto, was published asCanzone for oboe and string quartet.
Barber’s works are characterised by a rich orchestral palette as well as a strong vocal orientation. A prolific composer of songs, Barber made great use of lyrical and nostalgic texts from European writers such as Joyce to American poets such as Emily Dickinson. The international recognition that he earned throughout his life is proof of his uniqueness and flair.