Samuel Barber, March 9th, 1910: Happy 100th Birthday

>> Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Today we celebrate another milestone birthday of yet another great composer, Samuel Barber.

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 his most popular composition and widely considered a masterpiece of modern classical music. He was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music, for his opera Vanessa and his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. His Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a work for soprano and orchestra, was an acclaimed setting of prose by James Agee.

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. At the age of nine he wrote to his mother:

Dear Mother: I have written to tell you my worrying secret. Now don’t cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now, without any nonsense. To begin with I was not meant to be an athlete. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure. I’ll ask you one more thing .—Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football.—Please—Sometimes I’ve been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very).

He wrote his first musical 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 in Philadelphia, 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.

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 in composition, voice, and piano. He soon became a favorite of the conservatory's founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok. It was through Mrs. 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).

From his early to late twenties, Barber wrote a flurry of successful compositions, launching him into the spotlight of the classical music world. 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. When he was 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 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. (It was released 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. Barber revised the symphony in 1947, then destroyed the score in 1964. It was reconstructed from the instrumental parts.

Barber won the Pulitzer Prize twice: in 1958 for his first opera Vanessa, and in 1963 for his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.

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 and 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.

Information: Wikipedia

The piece I have featured is the first movement from Barber's Violin Concerto, played here by violinist Giora Schimdt, with the Israel Philharmonic, Itzhak Perlman, conducting.



4 comments:

Derrick March 9, 2010 at 6:32 AM  

Hi Lynette,

Snap! You couldn't have chosen a better piece. My favourite is Joshua Bell but I enjoyed this a lot. The second movement is my all time favourite. Thanks.

Lynette March 9, 2010 at 6:53 AM  

The recapitulation of the original theme about midway through the movement sends chills through me. I don't know what it is about this piece, but it absolutely sends me to the heights. I've always loved Barber's music, which is strange, because I'm not generally fond of early 20th century American composers' music. But there is something warm, lyrical, and tender about Barber's that touches me. Perhaps it's that deep, spiritual Pisces thing in him, I don't know, but he was one of the best!

Glad you enjoyed it, Derrick.

Alaine March 9, 2010 at 3:17 PM  

Thank you for your tribute to Barber; I also love his Adagio for Strings.

Congratulations on your book release.

Lynette March 9, 2010 at 5:58 PM  

Thanks for stopping by, Alaine. I'm glad you enjoyed this tribute. :)

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