One of the best loved and most frequently performed American composers of the twentieth century, Samuel Barber developed his own highly individual voice quite independent of the modernist mainstream. Intent on ploughing his own musical furrow, Barber sought to unite the extended tonal palette of late nineteenth century Romanticism with an unabashed lyricism and emotional candour. Producing major works in a range of genres his œuvre includes the celebrated Adagio for Strings, three concertos, two symphonies, numerous songs and the operas Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra, the former described by the critic of the New Yorker as "the finest and most truly ‘operatic’ opera ever written by an American", a work for which Barber was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1958. The second opera was commissioned for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966.
Born on 9th March 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Barber received a formal musical training, entering at the age of fourteen the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied piano and voice, as well as composition under Rosario Scalero. A key friendship was forged at this time with Gian Carlo Menotti, a fellow student composer at the Institute, and the two were to remain lifelong friends. Barber’s stylistic development and penchant for European art and culture were further shaped by extensive travel, notably several extended sojourns in Italy, a country with which he felt a keen empathy. He also benefited greatly from the support and guidance received from his aunt and uncle, Louise and Sidney Homer, the former a contralto and the latter a composer himself with whom Barber corresponded for a period of over a quarter of a century.
Having composed from the age of seven, Barber was the recipient of a number of awards early in his career: two Joseph H. Bearns prizes for his violin sonata of 1928, subsequently lost, and his first orchestral work, the 1931 Overture to The School for Scandal, Opus 5. This was followed in 1935 by the Prix de Rome, which earned him two years study at the American Academy in Rome and an annual stipend. These early successes were consolidated in 1936 by the RCA release of Dover Beach, Opus 3, written in 1931, Barber’s setting of verses by the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold for voice and string quartet, with the composer himself taking the vocal part. His burgeoning reputation was further advanced by the reception of his Symphony in One Movement, Opus 9, of 1936 and by Toscanini’s 1938 broadcast of his Adagio for Strings, Opus 11 and Essay for Orchestra, Opus 12. During the 1940s several important premières were given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, including the Second Symphony, Opus 19, written in 1944 for the U.S. Army Air Force, in which Barber served from 1942 to 1945, the Cello Concerto, Opus 22, written in 1945 for Raya Garbousova and Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Opus 24 (1948) for soprano and orchestra, based on a text by James Agee. Other key works were written at this time, notably the ballet score for Martha Graham, Medea, Opus 23 (1946) and the exceptional Piano Sonata, Opus 26 (1949) first performed in New York on 23rd January 1950 by the eminent pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Further significant commissions included Hermit Songs, Opus 29 (1952-53) for the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, Prayers of Kierkegaard, Opus 30 (1954) for the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and a trio of works for the opening of Lincoln Center – the Piano Concerto, Opus 38 (1962), for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize, Andromache’s Farewell, Opus 39 (1963) for soprano and orchestra, and the already mentioned opera Antony and Cleopatra, Opus 40 (1966), a critical failure and a work that was to preoccupy Barber for the next decade.
The delightful Serenade for Strings, Opus 1, is Barber’s own arrangement of his Serenade for String Quartet, composed in 1928 when he was just eighteen and still studying with Scalero. Cast in three short movements, Un poco adagio - Allegro con spirito, Andante and Allegro giocoso, the work exhibits two highly characteristic stylistic traits, namely the superimposition of duple and triple metres and the surprising shifts between major and minor tonalities.
Barber composed the one-movement tone poem Music for a Scene from Shelley, Opus 7, in Cadegliano, Italy in 1933 and its première was given at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic on 24th March 1935. This was a particularly memorable occasion for the composer, as it also marked the first time he had heard one of his orchestral works performed. Inspired to write the work after reading Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, the composer asserted that the piece was in no way programmatic. Both its scoring and harmonic language suggest the influence of Debussy and the initial theme, a four-note motif descending chromatically through the interval of a major third, makes an explicit reference to Debussy’s Nuages.
The Violin Concerto, Opus 14, was commissioned by Samuel Fels, one of the board of trustees of the Curtis Institute of Music, for Iso Briselli, a child prodigy and student of the famous violin teacher Carl Flesch. Unquestionably one of Barber’s most popular works, the three-movement concerto was completed in July 1940 and given its première on 7th February 1941 by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, when the soloist was actually the well known violinist Albert Spalding. The almost chamber-like intimacy of the concerto is reflected in the scoring for eight woodwind, two horns, two trumpets, percussion, piano and strings. Dispensing with the customary orchestral introduction the first movement opens with the solo violin stating the principal subject, while the central slow movement similarly begins with an introductory solo, this time played by the oboe. The perpetuum mobile third movement provides a particularly striking finale.
The ballet suite Souvenirs, Opus 28, consists of a waltz, schottische, pas de deux, two-step, tango and galop. Originally composed as a four-hand piano suite, Barber finished orchestrating the ballet in the summer of 1952. In the preface to the version for piano, four hands, Barber wrote: "One might imagine a divertissement in a setting of the Palm Court of the Hotel Plaza in New York, the year about 1914, epoch of the first tangos; ‘Souvenirs’ – remembered with affection, not in irony or with tongue in cheek, but in amused tenderness".
ReviewsThe neglected Violin Concerto is a masterpiece of the genre, performed here with rare sophisticated elegance by Buswell. Alsop has infused the RSNO with repect for Barber, who eschewed the mainstream in favour of a highly individual voice stemming from the intensity and colour of late nineteenth-century Romanticism. - Tarik O'Regan,