IHAS: Composer
Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
IHAS header
Return to Profiles Menu
Portrait of S. Barber
Previous Next


Music-making was always a part of Samuel Barber's life, from his earliest years. The nephew of contralto Louise Homer and her husband, the prolific song writer Sidney Homer, Barber had announced his vocation in a note written to his mother at the age of nine:

"I was meant to be a composer and will be I'm sure...Don't ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football--please."
Samuel Osborne Barber II was born March 9, 1910, in West Chester, PA, the son of a prominent doctor. Young Sam studied piano at six, began composing at seven, served as a church organist while still in his teens, and developed his attractive baritone voice to the point where he entertained the thought of becoming a professional singer. Enrolled in the newly-founded Curtis Institute at fourteen, Barber studied piano with Isabelle Vengerova, composition with Rosario Scalero, singing with Emilio de Gogorza, and conducting with Fritz Reiner and formed a life-long friendship with Giancarlo Menotti, whom he met in 1928 in Philadelphia. Two years of training in Italy after winning the 1935 Prix de Rome and numerous European jaunts helped the emerging composer to shake off the conservative influences of Homer and Scalero and shape his own distinctive musical language.

Barber composed a wide range of stage, orchestral, chamber, piano, choral, and vocal works in what he unassumingly insisted was a personal style "born of what I feel..I am not a self-conscious composer." His discipline and use of traditional forms earned him the reputation of a classicist. Virgil Thomson once wrote that Barber was laying to rest the ghost of Romanticism without violence, though in light of the composer's lush lyricism, deft dramatic sense, and inclination toward Romantic poetic sources (especially in his vocal writing), this comment ultimately proved to be off-mark. Throughout his catalogue of works, Barber adhered stubbornly to his own inner voice--a voice rich in subtlety and sumptuousness that relied deeply on melody, polyphony, and complex musical textures--all fused with an unerring instinct for graceful proportion and an unabashed affinity for Romantic thought and emotion.

Go Next Romantic Thought
& Emotion

His symphonic catalogue abounds in exquisitely crafted, yet deeply emotive, works, among them the lyrical 1933 MUSIC FOR A SCENE FROM SHELLY, Symphony No. 1 (1936), the ADAGIO FOR STRINGS (1938), and his CELLO CONCERTO, OPUS 22 (1945), to name but a few. His works for the stage include the Martha Graham ballet, MEDEA, the chamber opera A HAND OF BRIDGE, and his two full scale operas, VANESSA (1958) and ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA (1966). Despite the fact that the Shakespeare work which opened the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center was subjected to critical scorn, its failure was due less to Barber and far more to the overblown technical disaster created by stage designer Franco Zefferelli. Though a revised version presented by the Juilliard School in 1975 and a recent production by the Chicago Lyric Opera have gone a long way in reappraising Barber's score, the composer himself, devastated by the initial response, never fully recovered from the depression that followed. In addition to his symphonic compositions, Barber showed a particular flair in writing for both the piano and the voice. From the Brahmsian lyricism of his INTERLUDE NO.1, composed in his Curtis days and premiered only fifty years later by John Browning, to the virtuosic, passionate, and compelling PIANO SONATA, OPUS 26, to the Pulitzer Prize winning PIANO CONCERTO, OPUS 38, Barber has made landmark contributions to the keyboard repertoire.

One of 20th
Century's Most Accomplished
But perhaps it is as a songwriter that Barber is at his most Romantic and impassioned. A fine baritone himself, Barber's love of poetry and his intimate knowledge and appreciation of the human voice inspired all his vocal writing. John Browning asserts that throughout Barber's life, the composer was never without a volume or two of poetry at his bedside. Poetry was, Browning believes, as necessary to his existence as oxygen. In his impeccable choice of song texts, Barber was drawn to a wide variety of contemporary writers, prominent among them the Georgian School, the Irish bards, and the French Symbolists, who were, in fact, intimately connected with the linguistic experiments of the 20th century Irish master, James Joyce, as well as to contemporary American voices like James Agee. The complete edition of the songs recorded for Deutsche Grammophon by Thomas Hampson, Cheryl Studer, John Browning, and the Emerson String Quartet in 1992 not only revealed the range of Barber's vocal inspiration, but it offered ten previously unpublished (and subsequently issued) songs. These piano-vocal compositions, when taken together with Barber's two song settings for orchestra, KNOXVILLE SUMMER 1915 to words by James Agee and DOVER BEACH to a Victorian text by Matthew Arnold, make a powerful case for Barber as one of the twentieth century's most accomplished songwriters.

Listen to the song, "Sure On This Shining Night" in the Songbook

While he sometimes dismissed his youthful works, Barber retained a special fondness for DOVER BEACH (1931)--perhaps because he had performed it often, himself, and had recorded it in 1935, but more likely because he found in it and in Arnold's poem of pessimism and stoic despair a renewed meaning. Almost fifty years later when the composer was seventy, he remarked on the maturity of his inspiration in DOVER BEACH and the timelessness of Arnold's text, saying that the emotions seem contemporary. Sheet music
But, surely, Barber was not only speaking of the universal resonance of the work, but its personal one as well. For the man whose intensely private, reserved, urbane, and erudite exterior masked deep wellsprings of passion; for the artist whose expansiveness of feeling was always tempered by the mésure of form; for the composer whose insistence that melody and tonality fuse with modern dissonant harmonics, the artistic journey was a daunting and sometimes even depressing one.

Especially in his last decade after the initial failure of ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, Barber had reason to feel his works neglected and his mission misunderstood.

Late Works Composing became increasingly difficult for him, though he battled on, producing a trickle of important works, among them a piano BALLADE, THE LOVERS for baritone, chorus, and orchestra, the THIRD ESSAY FOR ORCHESTRA, and the late songs from OPUS 41 and OPUS 45, and he continued to confront his creative destiny with the same outward stoicism so poignantly reflected in Arnold's poem. That he never lived, as John Browning laments, to see the current revival of tonalism and lyricism among those young composers who, having found serialism a cul-de-sac, now regard Barber as their prophet is, of course, a great tragedy. And yet, each year, as Barber's compositions find new audiences and his reputation as one of the most important 20th century composers continues to grow, one may be permitted to imagine that Arnold's tremulous cadence of sadness with its impassioned counter-plea, "Ah love let us be true/To one another!" has found an enduring answer in Samuel Barber's stubborn, loving, faithful enduring commitment to a Muse and to a vision that were painfully, but inspiringly prescient.

Dover Beach
by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Return Home Top of the page
[ Home | Profiles | Timeline ]

[Thirteen Online]       [ PBS Online ]