Composer Samuel Barber: Biography, Songs & Adagio for Strings

Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

This lesson is about Samuel Barber, the American composer who wrote, among many other pieces, the famous Adagio for Strings. Here you'll learn about his life and his music.

Samuel Barber: Destined to Compose

Samuel Barber, composer of the famous Adagio for Strings, knew his calling when he was just nine years old. Writing a letter to his mother (who wanted him to be an athlete), young Samuel wrote: 'Now don't cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. ... I was not meant to be an athlet [sic]. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I'm sure.' As it turns out, he was right - Samuel grew up to become not only a composer but also one of the most performed and celebrated American musicians of all time. This lesson will introduce you to Samuel Barber, his iconic Adagio, and a few lesser-known masterpieces.

Biography

Samuel Barber was born March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He showed his musical talent quite early and was composing by the time he was seven. After convincing his mother (via letter) that he was destined for the musical life, he devoted himself to composition. Guided by his aunt and uncle, a singer and a composer, he undertook bigger and bigger projects. It only took him until the age of ten to write his first opera!

When he was fourteen, Samuel enrolled in the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia to study composition, piano, and singing. It was here that he would meet some of his most important collaborators, including his lifelong partner and librettist Gian Carlo Menotti. Barber spent ten years at Curtis. By the time he graduated, his friends included Mary Louise Curtis Bok, the founder of the Curtis Institute; she would support him financially and artistically for several years following his graduation.

Samuel Barber
Samuel Barber. Photo by Carl Van Vechten.

After graduation, he pursued a brief career in singing. However, starting with a performance of his works by the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1938, his composition career skyrocketed. Before long, he was writing music for some of the most important artists and ensembles of the day. In those years after his NBC performance, Barber composed new works for the U.S. Air Force, choreographer Martha Graham and her dance company, and the League of Composers.

Barber returned to Curtis in 1939, this time as a teacher. A few years later, he left Curtis, enlisting in the Army in 1942. Following his service, he returned to composing full time. Over the next fifty years, Barber would write symphonies, vocal music, and works for the stage, two of which set a libretto by his old friend Menotti. Later in his life, Barber struggled with alcoholism and depression, and in the last of his years he was often hospitalized for cancer-related problems. Barber passed away on January 23, 1981, having just finished a movement of a new piece.

Music

Barber lived and worked through some of the most tumultuous eras in American music, when many of his contemporaries were finding influence in the avant-garde and in experimental music. Despite that, Barber remained true to his voice; his compositions were always lush, emotional, and heavily inspired by the music of the 19th century. One early example is his Essay for Orchestra (the first of three he would write). Essay is at turns gloomy and heroic with intense emotional extremes. The middle section features a high level of counterpoint - multiple, interacting melodic lines - and imitation, or small 'echoes' between melodic voices. These compositional tricks reflect Barber's interest in the composers of the 1700s and 1800s, who used those devices extensively. Other important orchestral works include his Violin Concerto (1939) and his early Overture to School for Scandal (1931).

While Barber always tried for lyricism and emotion in his music, he wasn't afraid to use a grittier, more modern musical language. In Medea, his ballet for Martha Graham, Barber combines long, soaring melodies with dark and angry harmonies reminiscent of those his more modernist colleagues were using. It was later turned into a stand-alone work for orchestra, Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, and an orchestral suite, both of which are still performed today.

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