Samuel Barber


Born: 1910   Died: 1981   Country: USA   Period: 20th Century
An open-hearted yet tough romantic, Samuel Barber was one of the few twentieth century American composers to fight for the primacy of lyricism. In his last decades he seemed to be losing the battle, but by the end of the century Barber had posthumously become one of America's most widely performed and recorded composers. In particular, his emotive Violin Concerto and Adagio for Strings have gained a popularity exceeded only by certain works of Read more Aaron Copland.

Barber entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1924, where he met future opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti; the two would become lifelong lovers. Barber was an able pianist and a baritone of some talent, but he was an even more precocious composer. His 1933 Curtis graduation piece, the spirited School for Scandal Overture, has become a beloved concert opener.

Barber developed into America's most enduring composer of art songs; most popular is his tender setting for soprano and chamber orchestra of James Agee's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Barber had unerring taste in texts, and his literary interests led him to compose some allusive short orchestral pieces. Yet he was particularly adept at writing abstract works, such as Music for a Scene from Shelley. Many of these are in large forms: two symphonies, one string quartet (from which was drawn the Adagio for Strings, first popularized by Arturo Toscanini), an ambitious piano sonata, and one concerto each for violin, cello, and piano. While following traditional formats, they are propelled by a dramatic expressivity that hadn't been fashionable since Sibelius. Equally direct in their emotional content are his three Essays for Orchestra, the second being the best crafted and most acclaimed.

Barber would have seemed an ideal composer for the stage, but he had limited success in that realm. Medea, a 1947 dance score for Martha Graham, has found greater longevity in orchestral excerpts. His 1958 Vanessa garnered him the first of two Pulitzer Prizes (the second was for his Piano Concerto), but, like most other American operas, it quickly dropped out of sight. Barber wrote Anthony and Cleopatra to open the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966, but critical reaction was so hostile that he produced very little during his remaining 15 years. Barber was too conservative to be fashionable; his harmony could be astringent, but his tonality remained secure, his rhythms were strong and clear, and he was not above writing a good melody. Read less
Thompson: Symphony No. 2 - Adams: Drift & Providence - Barber: Symphony No. 1 / Ross, Natioinal Orchestral Institute
Release Date: 06/09/2017   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8559822   Number of Discs: 1
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American Classics - Barber: Capricorn Concerto / Alsop
Release Date: 02/22/2005   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8559135   Number of Discs: 1
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American Classics - Barber: Orchestral Works Vol 1 / Alsop
Release Date: 06/13/2000   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8559024   Number of Discs: 1
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Barber: Piano Concerto, Die Natali / Alsop, Prutsman
Release Date: 10/22/2002   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8559133   Number of Discs: 1
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Poulenc: Concerto For Organ; Petit: Concertino; Barber: Toccata Festiva
Release Date: 10/30/2001   Label: Linn Records  
Catalog: 178   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Adagio for Strings, Op. 11


About This Work
The Adagio, now almost invariably played in its orchestral version, comes from the slow movement of Barber's String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11 (1936), and must be counted among the most familiar pieces of American concert music; it has become a popular Read more classic and even exists in a choral version. The music has something of the archaic dignity of Renaissance polyphony; a rhapsodic ascending phrase is repeated, inverted, expanded and embellished before rising to a brittle climax, then fading into silence. The gradual build-up and slow release of tension -- the archetypical "arch" form -- gives the work an inexorable quality. In the quartet it serves the work well, giving point and focus to its neighboring movements, though somewhat upstaging them by its eloquence.

The orchestral version, first performed in 1938 by the NBC Symphony Orchestra and Arturo Toscanini (on the same occasion as Barber's First Essay for Orchestra), conveys both tranquillity and grief, and has frequently been chosen to mark occasions of public mourning; it was, for instance, played at the funerals of F.D.R., J.F.K. and Princess Grace, and has appeared in the scores to a number of poignant films, including The Elephant Man and Platoon. Since then it has frequently been heard all over the world, and was one of the few American works to be played regularly in the Soviet Union during the cold war. It is, however, not necessary to regard the Adagio as a lament. The work is an intense meditation by a composer who, in his 26th year, already possessed the confidence and craftsmanship to make a powerful personal statement with clarity and sincerity. Its poignancy, simplicity, and dignity have been praised by such composers as Ned Rorem, Roy Harris, William Schuman and Aaron Copland.

-- Roy Brewer Read less

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