Friday, March 09, 2018

Born Today In 1910, Pulitzer-Winning Composer Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber was born today, March 9, in 1910. He was an American composer of orchestral, opera, choral, and piano music. He is one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century: music critic Donal Henahan stated that "Probably no other American composer has ever enjoyed such early, such persistent, and such long-lasting acclaim."

His Adagio for Strings (1936) has earned a permanent place in the concert repertory of orchestras (it was used in the film Platoon among many others). He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music twice: for his opera Vanessa (1956–57) and for the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1962). Also widely performed is his Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947), a setting for soprano and orchestra of a prose text by James Agee.

Barber was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was born into a comfortable, educated, social, and distinguished American family. His father was a physician; his mother  was a pianist whose family had lived in the United States since the time of the American Revolutionary War.

At a very early age, Barber became profoundly interested in music, and it was apparent that he had great musical talent and ability. He began studying the piano at the age of 6 and at age 7 composed his first work, Sadness, a 23-measure solo piano piece in C minor. At the age of 9 he wrote to his mother:

"Dear Mother: I have written this 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 athlet [sic]. 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)."
Barber attempted to write his first opera, entitled The Rose Tree, at the age of 10. At the age of 12, he became an organist at a local church. When he was 14, he entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied piano and voice.  He 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 publishers, 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. His first orchestral work, an overture to The School for Scandal, was composed in 1931 when he was 21 years old. It premiered successfully two years later in a performance given by the Philadelphia Orchestra under conductor Alexander Smallens. Many of his compositions were commissioned or first performed by such famous artists as Vladimir Horowitz,  Leontyne Price, Pierre Bernac, Francis Poulenc, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. In 1935, at the age of 25, he was awarded the American Prix de Rome and was the recipient of a Pulitzer traveling scholarship, which allowed him to study abroad in 1935–1936. He was later awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1946.

When Barber was 28, his 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. At the end of the first rehearsal of the piece, Toscanini remarked, "Semplice e bella" (simple and beautiful).

In 1942, Barber joined the Army Air Corps; there, 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; it was published by G. Schirmer, and recorded the following year by the New Symphony Orchestra of London conducted by the composer, but in 1964 Barber destroyed the score. 

In 1943, Barber and Menotti purchased a house in Mount Kisco, New York.

Barber spent many years in isolation after the harsh rejection of his third opera Antony and Cleopatra. He suffered from depression, and was also beset by alcoholism. The opera was written for and premiered at the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House on September 16, 1966. After this setback, Barber continued to write music until he was almost 70 years old. The Third Essay for orchestra (1978) was his last major work.

Barber died of cancer in 1981 in New York City at the age of 70. 

Here is a partial list of the movies and television shows that have used Barber’s Adagio for Strings or its choral arrangement, Agnus Dei:

A Very Natural Thing (1974)
The Elephant Man (1980)
El Norte (1983)
Platoon (1986)
Lorenzo’s Oil (1992)
Wild Reeds (1994)
Falling for You (1995) (TV)
“ER” episode “Do One, Teach One, Kill One” (1995)
The Scarlet Letter (1995)
The Hunters (1996)
“Seinfeld” episode “The Fatigues” (1996)
The Closing Down of the Renault Factory at Vilvoorde Belgium – The Sexual Life of the Belgians – Part 3 (1999)
“Red Dwarf” episode “Only the Good…” (1999)
“Spaced” episode “Battles” (1999)
Kevin & Perry Go Large (2000)
Amélie (2001)
S1m0ne (2002)
3 episodes of “The Simpsons”: “The Strong Arms of the Ma” (2003), “Marge Gamer” (2007), “Little Orphan Millie” (2007)
Swimming Upstream (2003)
Reconstruction (2003)
“South Park” episode “Up the Down Steroid” (2004)
Ma Mère (2004)
Peace One Day (2004)
Liubi (2005)
Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (2006)
Sicko (2007)
“Big Love” episode “Outer Darkness” (2009)
“American Dad!” episode “In Country… Club” (2009)
“How I Met Your Mother” episode “Jenkins” (2010)


Sooo-this-is-me said...

Very interesting post, I love that piece of music but knew nothing about the composer. I think people in the LGBTQ society should push for a history month featuring our community.

Raybeard said...

Very much a composer whose fame rests on a single work (much to his chagrin, I should have thought) - rather the same case as with his one-time lover, Menotti. I'm familiar with the violin concerto, which is well worth becoming familiar with, but don't think I've ever heard his piano concerto. I shall rectify that. I see there are several versions there on YouTube.
But, my goodness, what a long list of films there are which have used 'Adagio' on soundtrack! The piece has become so familiar through that means it's almost become a cliche. I wish they'd stop using it on film now and confine it solely to the concert hall or on CD recordings.

TGA said...

Sooo.... There is a LGBTQ History Month... Depending on where you live, it is likely in October (U.S.) or February or May or June... depending on where you live. Go to this link for more info:

Sooo-this-is-me said...

I checked it out thank you. Turns out it's October here as well, a well kept secret. I think it's often called Pride month maybe that's why it doesn't get the same mention in the media. A little odd considering most pride parades occur July or August. Thanks again for the info. I am amazed at the effort you put into this blog, well done.