Samuel Barber’s fame rests largely on the huge popularity of his Adagio for Strings. Atypical in many respects, it does betray the fundamental principles that lay behind his art. He was a diehard romanticist, in that he liked his work to relate personal responses and emotions, and he enabled it to do so through a lyric gift underpinned by a harmonic sensibility based very much on the manners of the 19th century. This is not to say that he was an unoriginal composer – far from it. The songs have a clarity and an originality that puts one in mind of a figure like Poulenc. The Violin Concerto of 1939 contains elements of modernity not so far removed from the Violin Concerto of Berg. There is always a sense of refinement, of careful shaping and self-criticism. Perhaps the most accurate way to describe his music is as something courageously free. He felt unencumbered by the trends of the day. That was his singular strength.
Barber began learning the piano at 6 and composing at 7, encouraged by his aunt, the contralto Louise Homer, and his uncle, the song composer Sidney Homer. He entered the Curtis Institute at the age of 14. There he studied singing – he had a fine baritone voice and later recorded his own song-cycle Dover Beach – and conducting (with Fritz Reiner), as well as composition and piano. He remained at the Curtis for eight years, producing his earliest fully formed pieces. An award in 1928 for his Violin Sonata enabled him to go to Europe for the first time. He was drawn to Italy, and spent time at the American Academy in Rome (1935–7), where he wrote his First Symphony and a string quartet. The symphony was the first American work to be played at the Salzburg Festival; the slow movement of the quartet became the famous Adagio for Strings.
Barber taught for three years at the Curtis (1939–42), then set up house with the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, a fellow student who had travelled with him in Europe and remained his partner for the rest of his life. He wrote a Second Symphony in 1943 to a commission from the Army Air Force, but was dissatisfied with it; he attempted a revision in 1947 but withdrew it completely in 1967.After the war, he returned to Europe and produced a stream of large-scale works, including the Cello Concerto, the ballets Medea and Souvenirs, the vocal pieces Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Hermit Songs and Prayers of Kierkegaard and the Piano Sonata. There were also two important operas: Vanessa, to a libretto by Menotti, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1958; and Antony and Cleopatra, to a libretto by Franco Zeffirelli, which on its 1966 premiere (to open the new Metropolitan Opera in New York) was a spectacular flop. Barber claimed to have been unaffected by the disaster, but left for Italy after the premiere, isolating himself for the next five years. In 1974, however, he and Menotti began revising the piece and the second version proved far more successful. After that, Barber’s output slowed to a halt as he suffered the onset of the cancer that was to kill him at the age of 70.
Profile by Stephen Pettitt © BBC