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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,054

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This is the grave of Samuel Barber.

Born in 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Barber grew up as part of the early 20th century elite. His family went back generations and had plenty of money. It was also a musical family. His aunt, Louise Homer, was a famous contralto who sang at the Metropolitan Opera and his uncle, Sidney Homer, was a composer. So Samuel grew up in the world of highbrow music and it wasn’t that surprising that he chose this path himself. Plus he was very good at it, which was obvious from a young age. He started playing the piano at the age of 6 and started composing the very next year. His parents were fine with this but were also Muscular Christianity types who thought a good boy should do rough things such as play football. Barber HATED football and hated everything about athletics, finally just telling his parents to stop making do what he hated instead of what he loved. He was a gay kid and to say the least the heteronormativity of football was not his bag. So he just kept composing, including the official song of his high school that it still uses today. By the time he was 18, he was studying with the top people in America, including conducting with Fritz Reiner. He soon got access to the kind of art patrons that could make a career in music work. He was on the path to massive success.

It did not take Barber long to become the young genius everyone put their faith in. His early compositions were successful and he was winning major prizes for his work by the early 30s. For awhile, he also went into voice and sang as a baritone. He was reasonably successful at this too, getting a weekly contract to perform on NBC Radio, but gave it up relatively quickly to focus on his composing.

Part of what made Barber so popular is that he was a lot more accessible than the composers who more fully embraced modernism with its atonal ways. He was a composer who wanted to reach people. So he had more of a 19th century style, though one that still sounded contemporary for his time. After 1940, Barber did move slightly toward modernism, though never was a full-fledged supporter of its ideas. Barber hit the big time, with international recognition, after the publication of his 1936 piece Symphony in One Movement, which premiered in Rome while he was studying there. He came home and hit it big here too, with Arturo Toscanini conducting a performance of his Adagio for Strings in 1938 over the radio, using the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

Barber could also really embrace being an American composer, by which I mean that like Aaron Copland, he could reach into an Americana bag pretty easily. For example, one of his most famous pieces is Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which took a text by the journalist and novelist James Agee and set it to music. Even in the 1940s, a nostalgic-tinged look at a past America was ready to reach an audience. During World War II, Barber actually joined the military, serving in the Army Air Corps. I think they mostly used him as a publicity person and he was still composing during these years. He was certainly much more valuable this way than he was holding a gun. After the war, he entered his most productive period and became a real international superstar, at least as much as an American composer can be.

Much of Barber’s work was for vocals. He does have purely symphonic works of course, but as a voice guy himself, he was pretty committed to the idea of vocals in his compositions. For example, one of his most beloved compositions, Hermit Songs, from 1953, is a series of works using texts written by today unknown Irish monks between the 8th and 13th centuries. I am personally rather indifferent to this tendency in classical music to go back to the far olde times of the past for inspiration, but I am glad people do it for those who do like it. Another huge piece for Barber was his Piano Sonata, which has become part of the American canon and was immediately popular. It was commissioned by Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers as part of the 25th anniversary celebration of the League of Composers (Worst Superhero Group Eveh!) and was premiered with Vladimir Horowitz on the piano. Of course the U.S. State Department was highly interested in Barber’s international reputation and he was happy to play along as part of official U.S. delegations to eastern Europe to promote American culture.

Barber is perhaps unique in American compositional history for being seen as a genius when he started his career and seen as a genius for his whole career. I personally would take Ives and probably a few others as preferred, though I like what I know of Barber pretty well. I might consider John Adams as having a career just as long and lauded as his, though for my money, I’d rather listen to John Luther Adams than John Adams. In any case, Barber was beloved. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice, once for Vanessa, his 1957 opera and once for Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, in 1962. Vanessa also became the first American opera to be performed at the Salzburg Festival. Speaking of firsts, Barber was the first American composer to attend the Congress of Soviet Composers in Moscow. Enemies during the Cold War perhaps, but you can’t question that the Soviets loved them some classical music.

Barber was also fairly open gay. He lived with his partner, the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, for 40 years, though they broke up in 1970. But being reasonably openly gay in the 1930s was not easy. Toward the end of his life, Barber’s drinking got to him. He also had depression issues and his production began to falter. This really picked up after his opera Antony and Cleopatra, from 1966, was poorly reviewed. It seems that much of the problem here was production values rather than the music, especially that the production overwhelmed the music. Given this was still the Hollywood era of making ridiculous ancient Rome films with enormous production budgets, I can only imagine how this would translate to the opera. But he was still a star. In 1969, the legendary singer Leontyne Price premiered his song cycle Despite and Still to great acclaim. His last published piece was 1978’s The Third Essay. That year, he was diagnosed with cancer. He held on until 1981, but died that year at the age of 70.

Samuel Barber is buried in The Oaklands Cemetery, West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Let’s listen to some of Barber’s work:

If you would like this series to visit other composers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Aaron Copland is at the Tanglewood Music Center in Berkshire County, Massachusetts and Charles Ives is in Danbury, Connecticut. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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