Samuel Osborne Barber (March 9, 1910 – January 23, 1981) was a United States composer of classical music best known for his Adagio for Strings.
He was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania and began to compose at the age of seven. He had already chosen this career for himself by age nine, as he explained in a note written to his mother:
'I was meant to be a composer and will be I'm sure...Don't ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football--please.'
He studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia before becoming a fellow of the American Academy in Rome in 1935. The following year he wrote his String Quartet in B minor, the second movement of which he would arrange for string orchestra as his Adagio for Strings. This piece has remained popular to this day, being used in state funerals and other public memorial services in the United States since the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the films Platoon, The Elephant Man and S1m0ne and recently being given electronic treatments by William Orbit (a remix by Ferry Corsten sold well in both the US and the UK) and Tiësto.
The popularity of the Adagio has somewhat overshadowed the rest of Barber's output. However, he is seen as one of the most talented American composers of the 20th century. He avoided the experimentalism of some other American composers of his generation, preferring relatively traditional harmonies and forms. His work is lushly melodic and has often been described as neo-romantic. None of his other works come close to the popularity of the Adagio, but a number are regularly performed and recorded.
His songs, accompanied by piano or orchestra, are among the most popular 20th century songs in the classical repertoire. They include a setting of Matthew Arnold's 'Dover Beach,' originally written for string quartet and baritone, the Hermit Songs on anonymous Irish texts of the 8th to 13th centuries, and Knoxville: Summer of 1915, written for the soprano Eleanor Steber and based on an autobiographical text by James Agee, the introductory portion of his novel A Death in the Family. Barber possessed a good baritone voice and for a while considered becoming a professional singer, later making a few recordings, including his own Dover Beach.
Barber's Piano Sonata (1949), a piece commissioned by Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin, was first performed by Vladimir Horowitz. It was the first large scale American piano work to be premiered by such an internationally renowned pianist.
Barber also completed several operas, Vanessa (1952-57) being the best known. Barber worked on it very rapidly, and the work would have likely been completed much earlier but for his librettist and partner Gian Carlo Menotti's reluctance to finish the libretto. When the work was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, it was a critical and popular success and Barber won a Pulitzer Prize for it. At the European premiere it met with a chillier reception, however, and is now little played there, although it remains popular in America.
Barber produced three concertos for solo instruments and orchestra. The first, opus 14 for violin, came in 1939. Six years later, in 1945, he composed the Cello concerto opus 22. Then, in 1962, the piano concerto opus 38 dedicated to pianist John Browning. All were the result of commissions. The New York Philharmonic commissioned an oboe concerto, but Barber was unable to complete it before his death.
There have been varied accounts written concerning the events surrounding the commission and the delay in the premiere of the violin concerto. While it is almost universally regarded that the first two movements are exquisite and notable for their melodic lyricism and Romanticism, the last movement's high-speed virtuoso perpetual motion was less fitting and generally not received as positively. The source of debate revolved around whether Barber would receive the commission in spite of the questionable movement and the fact that the violinist who commissioned the work did not premiere the work; Barber had contended that the violinist believed the movement unplayable while the more recently published information strongly suggests that could not be accurate. In the end, Barber received his commission, the work received its premiere in 1941, and many program-note writers still tag the long-standing unplayability tale even though the preponderance of evidence points to aspects of differing musical interpretations and appropriateness of the composition's last movement.
Although never a prolific composer, Barber wrote much less after the flop of his opera Antony and Cleopatra (with a libretto by the film and opera director Franco Zeffirelli) in 1966. He died in New York City in 1981.
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