Samuel Barber: A Life

Following a series of blazing successes, the gifted and widely popular American composer, Samuel Barber, found himself gradually sidelined by the avant garde

Samuel Barber had the misfortune to be the right man in the right place but at the wrong time. His music is indisputably American in feel (albeit with a mild transatlantic flavour), yet it lacks the sheer pizzazz of those more inclined to embrace the popular mainstream.

While Copland was busy evoking the sounds of the Old West in Rodeo and Billy The Kid, and Bernstein was devouring everything from boogie-woogie to rock ’n’ roll, Barber stuck to his guns with concertos, symphonies and operas in the grand style.

50 years earlier, his gift for luxurious melody, poignant harmonies and achingly nostalgic soundworlds would have made him a national hero, but by the 1960s it was John Cage and Elvis who were grabbing the musical headlines.

Let us not paint too bleak a picture, however. For many listeners, Barber’s expertly crafted, deeply felt scores helped fill an emotional void left by the onslaught of Modernism. In his youth, fame and fortune came to him almost as easily as it had for Gershwin. Yet, unlike his colleague, he never felt entirely comfortable in the public eye, and suffered periods of agonising self-doubt and insecurity that increased with age.

One can sense Barber’s growing stylistic unease even in the glorious Violin Concerto, which for two movements is all Bruch and Sibelius, but in the finale becomes startlingly brusque, with an onrush of hurtling motorics à la Prokofiev. Indeed, it is the tension Barber creates between emotional warmth and restraint that lies at the heart of his musical output.

Barber’s prodigious gifts were evident from the start. Aged only 10, he wrote a short opera entitled The Rose Tree, and two years later was employed as organist at Westminster’s Presbyterian Church.

At 14 he became one of the first pupils at the new Curtis Institute Of Music in Philadelphia, where his tutors included the great conductor Fritz Reiner. One of his co-students at this time was the future composer of The Telephone and Amahl and the Night Visitors, Gian Carlo Menotti, who was destined to become Barber’s lifelong companion.

It was during his time at Curtis that Barber also developed a rich baritone voice, which can be heard on a landmark recording of his own Dover Beach for voice and string quartet. Yet it was as a composer that Barber felt his destiny lay.

In 1928 he won Columbia University’s Bearns Prize for his Violin Sonata, and again in 1933 for his blazing orchestral overture The School For Scandal. Taking its title from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comedy, it’s an extraordinarily accomplished piece for a 23-year-old.

Despite the title’s implication, it was not intended as a curtain-raiser but as “a musical reflection of the play’s spirit”. This exuberant work is full of great tunes and infectious rhythmic élan, ending as it begins with an outburst of high spirits.

Having won both a Pulitzer scholarship and the American Prix De Rome in quick succession, in 1935 Barber consolidated his early reputation with his Symphony In One Movement.

The following spring he rented a cottage at St Wolfgang (just outside Salzburg), an idyllic setting that inspired his Op.11 String Quartet. The second movement was destined to become Barber’s most celebrated work – it was arranged for string orchestra specifically at Arturo Toscanini’s request and is now famously known as the Adagio For Strings.

The war years had a profound impact on Barber’s musical thinking. The Violin Concerto (1939-40) essentially looks back to an idealised Romantic age. But Barber was shaken by the immediacy of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and one senses a sea-change away from emotionalism towards greater reserve in the Second Symphony and the Capricorn Concerto for flute, oboe and strings (both 1944).

One good thing did come out of this harrowing period, however: the purchase in 1943 of a secluded home called Capricorn, near Mount Kisco, New York, which Barber shared with his companion Menotti – this would remain his principal creative base until 1974.

Reinvigorated by his new surroundings, a period of consummate mastery was signalled by the Cello Concerto of 1945, a noble piece which is beautifully written for the instrument.

Exquisite poetics and outbursts of virtuosity are held in perfect balance as Barber pointedly avoids the notion of cellist Raya Garbousova (for whom he wrote the concerto) that “the only way to break one’s heart is to vibrate on the C string”. Serge Koussevitzky conducted the premiere in 1946, and the concerto won the New York Music Critics Circle Award in 1947.

The Cello Concerto was followed swiftly by the ballet Medea (1946), written for Martha Graham, and Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947), a mesmerising setting of James Agee’s poem of childhood reminiscences.

Barber reached the peak of his popularity when in 1949 Vladimir Horowitz premiered the highly virtuosic Piano Sonata, proclaiming it to be “the first truly great native work in the form”.

But Barber was fiercely independent and did not court popularity. As America waited with bated breath for Barber’s next barnstorming opus, it was rewarded instead with a series of exquisite miniatures, including the ballet score Souvenirs (1952), Summer Music For Wind Quintet (1956), and the Op.29 Hermit Songs.

However, just as it seemed that Barber had withdrawn into himself (there were even rumours that he had burnt out altogether), he bounced back with his Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, Vanessa (1958). 

This sumptuous score is set to a daringly simple libretto by Menotti: Vanessa still pines for her long-lost lover of 20 years; her niece, Erika, falls in love with Anatol, the lost lover’s son; Anatol tells Vanessa of his father’s death, and, having first seduced Erika, decides to marry Vanessa; they set off for Paris, leaving Erika to pine as her aunt once had.

Barber throws everything into the stylistic melting pot, from Puccini and Mascagni, to Richard Strauss and Korngold.

“It was a miracle that a composer had the courage to write music in this style,” wrote the conductor of the premiere, Dmitri Mitropoulos. “He hadn’t been contaminated by different kinds of contemporary experimentation… At last, an American grand opera!”

Barber won a second Pulitzer Prize just four years later for his bracing Piano Concerto. Commissioned by his publishers G Schirmer to celebrate their centenary, the premiere took place on September 24, 1962, marking the grand opening of the Lincoln Center’s new Philharmonic Hall.

Within two years it had been performed in more than 50 musical centres around the world. Recalling the structure of the Violin Concerto, two movements of heart-warming lyricism lead to a rhythmically thrusting finale, a cri de coeur written when Barber was suffering from depression following the death of his sister.

Yet, despite all the acclaim, Barber had become despondent about his creative role in society. America had changed beyond all recognition since he had first exploded onto the scene, making the composer feel rather isolated. In a last-ditch attempt to rekindle the old Romantic flame, Barber intended to go out in a blaze of glory with his second grand opera, Antony And Cleopatra.

The critical mauling the work received when it officially opened the New Metropolitan Opera House in September 1966 (mostly due to Zeffirelli’s production rather than the music) almost destroyed him. His publisher, Hans Heinsheimer, referred to it as a “terrible catastrophe from which he never recovered”.

Dismayed and dejected, Barber retired to the Italian Alps and turned in on himself as never before, with such introspective utterances as the song cycle Despite And Still (to words by Graves, Roethke and Joyce), The Lovers (a choral work based on the poetry of Pablo Neruda), and the short Fadograph Of A Yestern Scene for orchestra.

Struggling with depression exacerbated by alcoholism, Barber composed almost nothing for six years. Then, just as it seemed as though his creative flame had died, he produced two scores in quick succession – a solo piano piece Ballade (1977), and a Third Essay For Orchestra (1978) – but these are mere shadows of his earlier work.

Barber died a broken man. Overtaken by changing artistic trends, he unwittingly found himself consigned to the respected middle-ground, alongside such worthies as Roy Harris, William Schuman, Alan Hovhaness and Howard Hanson.

With audiences clamouring for novelty, all Barber could offer them was honesty. As he revealed in a 1971 interview, “When I write an abstract piano sonata or concerto, I write what I feel. I believe this takes a certain courage.”