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Samuel Barber 1910-1981
 


Country : West Chester, PA
Profession : Composer
Date of birth : 1910-03-09
Date of death : 1981-01-23
Cause of Death : Unspecified

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SamuelBarber

Samuel Osborne Barber II (March 9, 1910 – January 23, 1981) was an American composer of orchestral, opera, choral, and piano music. His Adagio for Strings is among his most popular compositions and widely considered a masterpiece of modern classical music.

Biography

Early years

Barber was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the son of Marguerite McLeod (née Beatty) and Samuel LeRoy Barber. At a very early age, Barber became profoundly interested in music, and it was apparent that he had great musical talent and ability.


He wrote his first musical composition at the early age of 7 and attempted to write his first opera at the age of 10. He was an organist at the age of 12. When he was 14, he entered the Curtis Institute, where he studied piano, composition, and voice.

Barber was born into a comfortable, educated, social, and distinguished Irish-American family. His father was a doctor, and his mother was a pianist. His aunt, Louise Homer, was a leading contralto at the Metropolitan Opera and his uncle, Sidney Homer, was a composer of American art songs. Louise Homer is noted to have influenced Barber's interest in voice. Through his aunt, Barber had access to many great singers and songs. This background is further reflected in that Barber decided to study voice at the Curtis Conservatory.

Barber began composing seriously in his late teenage years. Around the same time, he met fellow Curtis schoolmate Gian Carlo Menotti, who became his partner in life as well as in their shared profession. At the Curtis Institute, Barber was a triple prodigy of composition, voice, and piano. He soon became a favorite of the conservatory's founder, Mary Louise Bok. It was through Bok that Barber was introduced to his lifelong publisher, the Schirmer family. At the age of 18, Barber won the Joseph H. Bearns Prize from Columbia University for his Violin Sonata (now lost or destroyed by the composer).

Mid years

From his early to late twenties, Barber wrote a flurry of successful compositions, launching him into the spotlight of the classical music community. Many of his compositions were commissioned or first performed by such famous artists as Vladimir Horowitz, Eleanor Steber, Raya Garbousova, John Browning, Leontyne Price, Pierre Bernac, Francis Poulenc, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. At the young age of 28, Barber's Adagio for Strings was performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arturo Toscanini in 1938, along with his first essay for orchestra. The Adagio had been arranged from the slow movement of Barber's string quartet op.11. Toscanini had only very rarely performed music by American composers before (an exception was Howard Hanson's Second Symphony, which he conducted in 1933). At the end of the first rehearsal of the piece, Toscanini remarked: "Semplice e bella" ("simple and beautiful").

Barber served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, where he was commissioned to write his Second Symphony, a work he later suppressed (and which was resurrected in a Vox recording by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Schenck). Composed in 1943, the symphony was originally titled Symphony Dedicated to the Air Forces and was premiered in early 1944 by Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He revised the symphony in 1947, then destroyed the score in 1964. It was reconstructed from the instrumental parts.

Barber won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963 for his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.

Later years

Barber spent many years in isolation (eventually diagnosed with clinical depression) after the harsh rejection of his third opera Antony and Cleopatra (which he believed contained some of his best music. "This was supposed to have been my opera!" he said). The opera was written for and premiered at the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House on 16 September 1966. After this setback, Barber continued to write music until he was almost 70 years old. Barber's music in his later years would be lauded as reflective, contemplative, but without the morbidity or unhappiness of other composers who knew they had a limited time to live. The Third Essay for Orchestra (1978) was his last major work and critics received it as having all the vigor and imagination of his earlier works.

Barber died of cancer in 1981 in New York City at the age of 70. He was buried in Oaklands Cemetery in his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Achievements and awards

Barber was president of the International Music Council of UNESCO, where he did much to bring into focus and ameliorate the conditions of international musical problems. He was also one of the first American composers to visit Russia (which was then a constituent republic of the Soviet Union). Barber was also influential in the successful campaign of composers against ASCAP, helping composers increase the share of royalties they receive from their compositions. Barber was the recipient of numerous awards and prizes including the Rome Prize (the American version of the Prix de Rome), two Pulitzers, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Music

Orchestral music

Barber intensely played and studied the music of J.S. Bach. He also was an adherent of Brahms, from whom he learned how to compress profound emotions into small modules of highly charged musical expression (Cello Sonata, 1932). In 1933, after reading the poem "Prometheus Unbound" by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Barber composed the tone poem Music for a Scene from Shelley. In 1935, the work was premiered at Carnegie Hall, and this was the first time the composer heard one of his orchestral works performed publicly. Barber's compositional style has been lauded for its musical logic, sense of architectural design, effortless melodic gift, and direct emotional appeal as evident in Overture to The School for Scandal (1931) and Music for a Scene from Shelley (1933). These characteristics remained in his music throughout his lifetime.

Through the success of his Overture to The School for Scandal (1931), Music for a Scene from Shelley (1933), Adagio for Strings (1938); (First) Symphony in One Movement (1936), (First) Essay for Orchestra (1937) and Violin Concerto (1939), Barber garnered performances by the world's leading conductors — Eugene Ormandy, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Bruno Walter, Charles Münch, George Szell, Artur Rodziński, Leopold Stokowski, and Thomas Schippers.

His compositions would later include characteristics of polytonality (Second Symphony, 1944), atonality (Medea, 1946; Prayers of Kierkegaard, 1954), Twelve-tone technique (Nocturne, 1959 and the Piano Sonata, 1949), and even jazz (Excursions, 1944; A Hand of Bridge, 1959). Although not pathbreaking, Barber's compositions distill an eclectic blend of the "musical currents hovering about in his time". John Corigliano succinctly described Barber's style as "an interesting dichotomy of harmonic procedures — an alternation between post-Straussian chromaticism and often diatonic typical American simplicity."

Among his finest works are his four concertos, one each for Violin (1939), Cello (1945) and Piano (1962), and also the neoclassical Capricorn Concerto for flute, oboe, trumpet and string orchestra. All of these works are extremely rewarding for the soloists and public alike, as all contain both highly virtuosic and extremely beautiful writing, often simultaneously. The latter three have been unfairly neglected until recent years, when there has been a reawakening of interest in the expressive possibilities of these masterpieces.

Piano

Having studied piano at Curtis, Barber composed many piano pieces. The four-piano "bagatelles" Excursions (1942-44), was his first venture into Americana music. Its elements of boogie-woogie, blues, cowboy songs, and hoedown are not typical of Barber's classical and refined music. In 1949, Barber wrote his well received Piano Sonata. The Nocturne for Piano (Hommage to John Field), Opus 33, is another respected piece he produced for the instrument.

Opera

Gian Carlo Menotti, whom Barber had met at Curtis, supplied the libretto (text) for Barber's opera, Vanessa, in which the title role was originally written for Sena Jurinac who later declined the offer. Barber's beautiful baritone voice and vocal training were more than adequate to impress Rudolf Bing. In 1956, Barber sang him the score of Vanessa; the impresario was so astonished that he accepted and produced the work immediately. Vanessa went on to win the 1958 Pulitzer Prize and gained acclaim as the first American "grand" opera. Menotti also contributed the libretto for Barber's chamber opera A Hand of Bridge. Barber's Antony and Cleopatra was commissioned to open the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966. The elaborate production designed by Franco Zeffirelli was marred by numerous technological disasters; it also overwhelmed and obscured Barber's music, which most critics derided as uncharacteristically weak and unoriginal. In recent years, a revised version of Antony and Cleopatra, for which Menotti provided collaborative assistance, has enjoyed some success.

Vocal

With a background deeply rooted in singing (having studied with Emilio de Gogorza), Barber's love of poetry and his intimate knowledge, and appreciation, of the human voice inspired his vocal writing. Barber's most famous vocal compositions, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (to words by James Agee) and Dover Beach (to words from a Victorian text by Matthew Arnold), were greatly successful and received critical acclaim, making a powerful case for Barber as one of the twentieth century's most accomplished composers for the voice.

In honor of Barber's vast influence on American music, on October 19, 1974 he was awarded the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit. This award was established in 1964 "to bring a declaration of appreciation to an individual each year that has made a significant contribution to the world of music and helped to create a climate in which our talents may find valid expression."

In September 1992, soprano Cheryl Studer, baritone Thomas Hampson, the preeminent Samuel Barber pianist John Browning and the Emerson String Quartet were captured by Deutsche Grammophon (catalogue 435 867-2) in the complete songs of Samuel Barber (with the exception of "Knoxville: Summer of 1915") at the Brahms-Saal of the famous Musikverein in Vienna, Austria. The set has become an undisputed classic of American song on record.

Quote

  • "How awful that the artist has become nothing but the after-dinner mint of society" – Samuel Barber

Notable compositions

For a full list of works with opus number and some without, see List of compositions by Samuel Barber

  • Dover Beach (Baritone and String Quartet) (Op. 3, 1931)
  • The School for Scandal (Overture) (Op. 5, 1931)
  • Cello Sonata (Op. 6, 1932)
  • (First) Symphony in One Movement (Op. 9, 1936)
  • Essay for Orchestra (Op. 12, 1937)
  • Adagio for Strings (arr. of String Quartet, mov’t 2) (Op. 11, 1938)
  • Violin Concerto (Op. 14, 1939)
  • Second Essay for Orchestra (Op. 17, 1942)
  • Excursions (Piano) (Op. 20, 1942-44)
  • Capricorn Concerto (Op. 21, 1944)
  • Cello Concerto (Op. 22, 1945)
  • Medea (Ballet) (Op. 23, 1946)
  • Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (Soprano & Orchestra) (Op. 24, 1948)
  • Sonata for Piano (Op. 26, 1949)
  • Hermit Songs (Op. 29, 1953)
  • Prayers of Kierkegaard (Soprano, Choir & Orchestra) (Op. 30, 1954)
  • Summer Music for Wind Quintet (Op. 31, 1956)
  • Vanessa (Opera) (Op. 32, 1957)
  • A Hand of Bridge (Chamber opera) (Op. 35, 1959)
  • Piano Concerto (Op. 38, 1962)

 

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