Samuel Barber Essay

Far from being progressive, he reimagined musical gestures as they already existed. But, says Philip Clark, his music still sings

For a Luigi Nono-loving, John Cage-worshipping advocate for the hardcore avant-garde – me, in fact – Samuel Barber ought to be purgatory. Until his death in 1981, he wrote defiantly neo-Romantic music, engaging with new-fangled techniques like atonality and polytonality only occasionally.

His explorations of atonality in Medea, the ballet he wrote in 1946 for Martha Graham, don’t convince; likewise jazz in Excursions and A Hand of Bridge sounds forced and self-consciously awkward, like watching your dad trying to breakdance at your 21st. But Barber never questioned the validity of producing his nostalgic, serene, orderly music during the most turbulent decades of the 20th century. He was joint-out-of-time, happy – proud even – to be reinventing wheels that had been spinning for centuries.

So why does Barber’s music keep me coming back for more? On this side of the Atlantic (as a British writer), disentangling Barber’s output from the cult surrounding his 1936 Adagio for Strings, which eclipses everything else he wrote, is not easy. Like Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue or Ives’sThe Unanswered Question, the Adagio has become a totem by which we judge American classical music in the UK. No surprise it was chosen to replace the usual pooterish diet of jolly jingoism at The Last Night of The Proms following the September 11th terrorist attacks. Its enduring emotional resonance has surely far outstripped anything Barber could have imagined, as though an unconscious, collective decision has been taken – think slow and mournful string music, think Barber.

But it’s not like Adagio for Strings is even the most affecting “slow string piece” around. Nowhere near it in fact: the structural and harmonic intensities of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth, Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen or the “Elégie” from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings all articulate an originality of voice that blows the Adagioout the water. Yet Barber’s directness of expression – that flawless arc of a single musical idea igniting, then dimming – unfailingly captures imaginations, whether or not people realise it was originally the slow movement of his String Quartet No 1, or even care about its provenance. The Adagio’s anthem-like qualities have lent themselves to being adopted by film-makers, sensitively in the case of Oliver Stone’s Platoon, less so in Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko, where Barber is used to shamelessly stoke-up sentiment; and also by the Dutch DJ Tïesto who, bizarrely, created upbeat dance music by knitting drum patterns under Barber’s elegy.

I have an idea about Barber, and it’s this. By composing the music he did, when he did, he effectively closed the door on originality. Unlike Copland, Tippett, Sibelius and Shostakovich (not to mention Stravinsky), all near-contemporaries, Barber didn’t have it within him to re-shape, or probe, for new structural sub-clauses within tonality. Barber was put on this earth to infiltrate, then re-imagine, archetypes of musical gesture as they already existed. So his Adagio might not be the “best” string piece, but it distils inside its tight eight-minute frame the heritage and expressive expectations of slow, mournful string music. It’s a masterly essay about slow string music, written as slow string music.

And “Essay” was a word Barber himself attached to his music. He wrote an Essay for Orchestra in 1937 (premiered by Toscanini in November 1938 alongside Adagio for Strings), and a “sequel”, Essay for Orchestra No 2 followed in 1942 (premiered by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic); an Essay No 3 appeared in 1976. As generic descriptions for music go “Essay” is hardly very sexy, evoking, as it does, a dusty, quaint literary form at a time when the composers who really mattered were tossing ideas of form into the conceptual Magimix. But the music! True to his title, Barber’s first Essay opens with a boldly rhetorical statement in the strings: a mood of potent lamentation is established that Barber develops with an essayist’s sensibility for pursuing a single train-of-thought towards a logical conclusion. Although the second Essay explores a greater variety of rhetorical nuance and orchestral texture, Barber again filters distinct strands into a continuum of thought, resisting the dialectical play-off you might expect in a symphonic first movement. A central fugue mashes up Barber’s ideas; at the end, three principle themes are combined into a powerful summary.

There is an inevitability about Barber’s Essays: the unfolding of his melodic and harmonic material defines its own form, which, in turn, illuminates the qualities of his material. But the two symphonies he wrote during that same period are constrained, not liberated, by the formalities of symphonic structure. Barber described his Symphony No 1, written in 1936, as a “synthetic treatment of the four-movement Classical symphony”, and the essential purity of his voice is dragged down with the weight of superfluous structural clutter. His Second Symphony (1944) landed Barber with a creative crisis. It has an unexpectedly brutalist core: structures snap and fragment, and the finale asserts a vindictive vigour unique to Barber’s output. Later he dismissed his wartime symphony, written after he was conscripted into the US Air Force, as simply “not very good”, but perhaps this uncharacteristically enraged music left him feeling uncomfortably exposed. Certainly he went to implausible lengths to suppress the score.

Not satisfied with his 1947 revision, Barber eventually withdrew it in 1964, pulping his autograph score and recalling all prints of the published edition. Only after his death, when copies inevitably resurfaced, could this symphonic Frankenstein’s monster be reassessed. Why was symphonic form such a problem? Did the pressures of that historically loaded word “symphony” make Barber realise that, after all, he wasn’t immune from the zeitgeist, as Roy Harris’s Third, Bernstein’s Jeremiah and Copland’s Third defined their creative spark from re-thinking symphonic protocol?

In his large-scale Violin and Piano Concertos (1940; 1960), Barber leads a central “voice” through an orchestral landscape, and a focus familiar from the Essays re-emerges. And “voice” becomes a significant word. Like the symphonies, these concertos “borrow” archetypal forms, but his voice – Barber’s need to “sing” in his music – transcends the pedestrian constructs. His formative musical experiences came from his aunt, the contralto Louise Homer, and Barber studied singing himself: I think he never really gave up singing.

Even the intrinsic vocal properties of the Adagio for Strings became apparent when, in 1967, Barber transcribed it as an Agnus Dei for a cappella choir. Dover Beach, an early setting for baritone and string quartet of Matthew Arnold’s lyric poem, gave notice of his effortless melodic gifts, while the classic Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947) finds Barber at the peak of his melodic invention. Knoxville, James Agee’s memoir of his Tennessee childhood, is transformed into a free floating dream-sequence in Barber’s piece that licensed the composer to interweave sustained vocal writing through a complex sequence of scenes and episodes. The musical structure evolves from the unfolding material. Barber doesn’t put a note wrong.

Barber’s first opera, Vanessa, from 1957, naturally operates on a grander scale. His essential Romanticism is spiced up with the symbolic deployment of atonality, but the music always blossoms from the demands of the text. A second opera, Antony and Cleopatra (1966), should have been his crowning achievement. Everything boded well: film director Franco Zeffirelli, no less, culled a libretto from the Shakespeare play, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera gave Barber carte blanche to do as he liked. But the music relied on overripe, cinematic bombast and felt like a stuffy throw-back in a world where Wozzeck and Peter Grimes had shattered old certainties. Barber never recovered from this critical rout, and left the US for a whole decade to lick his wounds.

Barber considered Antony and Cleopatra his masterpiece, but he was wrong. Nearly everything else in his catalogue is better: the Piano Sonata he wrote for Vladimir Horowitz, the playful, raucous Capricorn Concerto, based around the instrumentation of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 2 and, of course, the Essays and Adagio. These low-key masterpieces were crafted by a composer in love with the art of composition. Ironically for this still underrated composer, it was only when he tried too hard to create a masterpiece that he forgot to sing.

Five Essential Barber Recordings

Adagio for Strings / Violin Concerto / Knoxville: Summer of 1915 / Essay for Orchestra No 1

(Warner Classics)
Uncle Sam’s greatest hits! Barbara Hendricks’s Knoxville (London Symphony Orchestra / Tilson Thomas) and Elmar Oliveria’s Violin Concerto (St Louis SO / Slatkin) is paired with a selection of miniatures, including a taut First Essay for Orchestra.

Symphonies Nos 1 & 2

The highlight, probably, of Marin Alsop and the RNSO’s Barber cycle: Alsop’s violent account of the Second Symphony doesn’t compromise Barber’s vision – as perhaps he might have wanted her to…


This studio recording of Barber’s first opera features an American cast and Ukrainian orchestra. Ellen Chickering, in the lead role, unites the natural lyrical grain of Barber’s lines with dramatic momentum.

Capricorn Concerto 

The Capricorn Concerto is a curiosity as Barber revisits Stravinskian neo-classicism – a rare example of Neo-neoclassicism?

Dover Beach / Cello Sonata

Another recording of the Capricorn Concerto, but the highlight here is Barber’s own performance of Dover Beach, recorded in 1935.


Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber: A Life

Following a series of blazing successes, the gifted and widely popular American composer, Samuel Barber, found himself gradually sidelined by the avant garde

Samuel Barber had the misfortune to be the right man in the right place but at the wrong time. His music is indisputably American in feel (albeit with a mild transatlantic flavour), yet it lacks the sheer pizzazz of those more inclined to embrace the popular mainstream.

While Copland was busy evoking the sounds of the Old West in Rodeo and Billy The Kid, and Bernstein was devouring everything from boogie-woogie to rock ’n’ roll, Barber stuck to his guns with concertos, symphonies and operas in the grand style.

50 years earlier, his gift for luxurious melody, poignant harmonies and achingly nostalgic soundworlds would have made him a national hero, but by the 1960s it was John Cage and Elvis who were grabbing the musical headlines.

Let us not paint too bleak a picture, however. For many listeners, Barber’s expertly crafted, deeply felt scores helped fill an emotional void left by the onslaught of Modernism. In his youth, fame and fortune came to him almost as easily as it had for Gershwin. Yet, unlike his colleague, he never felt entirely comfortable in the public eye, and suffered periods of agonising self-doubt and insecurity that increased with age.

One can sense Barber’s growing stylistic unease even in the glorious Violin Concerto, which for two movements is all Bruch and Sibelius, but in the finale becomes startlingly brusque, with an onrush of hurtling motorics à la Prokofiev. Indeed, it is the tension Barber creates between emotional warmth and restraint that lies at the heart of his musical output.

Barber’s prodigious gifts were evident from the start. Aged only 10, he wrote a short opera entitled The Rose Tree, and two years later was employed as organist at Westminster’s Presbyterian Church.

At 14 he became one of the first pupils at the new Curtis Institute Of Music in Philadelphia, where his tutors included the great conductor Fritz Reiner. One of his co-students at this time was the future composer of The Telephone and Amahl and the Night Visitors, Gian Carlo Menotti, who was destined to become Barber’s lifelong companion.

It was during his time at Curtis that Barber also developed a rich baritone voice, which can be heard on a landmark recording of his own Dover Beach for voice and string quartet. Yet it was as a composer that Barber felt his destiny lay.

In 1928 he won Columbia University’s Bearns Prize for his Violin Sonata, and again in 1933 for his blazing orchestral overture The School For Scandal. Taking its title from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comedy, it’s an extraordinarily accomplished piece for a 23-year-old.

Despite the title’s implication, it was not intended as a curtain-raiser but as “a musical reflection of the play’s spirit”. This exuberant work is full of great tunes and infectious rhythmic élan, ending as it begins with an outburst of high spirits.

Having won both a Pulitzer scholarship and the American Prix De Rome in quick succession, in 1935 Barber consolidated his early reputation with his Symphony In One Movement.

The following spring he rented a cottage at St Wolfgang (just outside Salzburg), an idyllic setting that inspired his Op.11 String Quartet. The second movement was destined to become Barber’s most celebrated work – it was arranged for string orchestra specifically at Arturo Toscanini’s request and is now famously known as the Adagio For Strings.

The war years had a profound impact on Barber’s musical thinking. The Violin Concerto (1939-40) essentially looks back to an idealised Romantic age. But Barber was shaken by the immediacy of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and one senses a sea-change away from emotionalism towards greater reserve in the Second Symphony and the Capricorn Concerto for flute, oboe and strings (both 1944).

One good thing did come out of this harrowing period, however: the purchase in 1943 of a secluded home called Capricorn, near Mount Kisco, New York, which Barber shared with his companion Menotti – this would remain his principal creative base until 1974.

Reinvigorated by his new surroundings, a period of consummate mastery was signalled by the Cello Concerto of 1945, a noble piece which is beautifully written for the instrument.

Exquisite poetics and outbursts of virtuosity are held in perfect balance as Barber pointedly avoids the notion of cellist Raya Garbousova (for whom he wrote the concerto) that “the only way to break one’s heart is to vibrate on the C string”. Serge Koussevitzky conducted the premiere in 1946, and the concerto won the New York Music Critics Circle Award in 1947.

The Cello Concerto was followed swiftly by the ballet Medea (1946), written for Martha Graham, and Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947), a mesmerising setting of James Agee’s poem of childhood reminiscences.

Barber reached the peak of his popularity when in 1949 Vladimir Horowitz premiered the highly virtuosic Piano Sonata, proclaiming it to be “the first truly great native work in the form”.

But Barber was fiercely independent and did not court popularity. As America waited with bated breath for Barber’s next barnstorming opus, it was rewarded instead with a series of exquisite miniatures, including the ballet score Souvenirs (1952), Summer Music For Wind Quintet (1956), and the Op.29 Hermit Songs.

However, just as it seemed that Barber had withdrawn into himself (there were even rumours that he had burnt out altogether), he bounced back with his Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, Vanessa (1958). 

This sumptuous score is set to a daringly simple libretto by Menotti: Vanessa still pines for her long-lost lover of 20 years; her niece, Erika, falls in love with Anatol, the lost lover’s son; Anatol tells Vanessa of his father’s death, and, having first seduced Erika, decides to marry Vanessa; they set off for Paris, leaving Erika to pine as her aunt once had.

Barber throws everything into the stylistic melting pot, from Puccini and Mascagni, to Richard Strauss and Korngold.

“It was a miracle that a composer had the courage to write music in this style,” wrote the conductor of the premiere, Dmitri Mitropoulos. “He hadn’t been contaminated by different kinds of contemporary experimentation… At last, an American grand opera!”

Barber won a second Pulitzer Prize just four years later for his bracing Piano Concerto. Commissioned by his publishers G Schirmer to celebrate their centenary, the premiere took place on September 24, 1962, marking the grand opening of the Lincoln Center’s new Philharmonic Hall.

Within two years it had been performed in more than 50 musical centres around the world. Recalling the structure of the Violin Concerto, two movements of heart-warming lyricism lead to a rhythmically thrusting finale, a cri de coeur written when Barber was suffering from depression following the death of his sister.

Yet, despite all the acclaim, Barber had become despondent about his creative role in society. America had changed beyond all recognition since he had first exploded onto the scene, making the composer feel rather isolated. In a last-ditch attempt to rekindle the old Romantic flame, Barber intended to go out in a blaze of glory with his second grand opera, Antony And Cleopatra.

The critical mauling the work received when it officially opened the New Metropolitan Opera House in September 1966 (mostly due to Zeffirelli’s production rather than the music) almost destroyed him. His publisher, Hans Heinsheimer, referred to it as a “terrible catastrophe from which he never recovered”.

Dismayed and dejected, Barber retired to the Italian Alps and turned in on himself as never before, with such introspective utterances as the song cycle Despite And Still (to words by Graves, Roethke and Joyce), The Lovers (a choral work based on the poetry of Pablo Neruda), and the short Fadograph Of A Yestern Scene for orchestra.

Struggling with depression exacerbated by alcoholism, Barber composed almost nothing for six years. Then, just as it seemed as though his creative flame had died, he produced two scores in quick succession – a solo piano piece Ballade (1977), and a Third Essay For Orchestra (1978) – but these are mere shadows of his earlier work.

Barber died a broken man. Overtaken by changing artistic trends, he unwittingly found himself consigned to the respected middle-ground, alongside such worthies as Roy Harris, William Schuman, Alan Hovhaness and Howard Hanson.

With audiences clamouring for novelty, all Barber could offer them was honesty. As he revealed in a 1971 interview, “When I write an abstract piano sonata or concerto, I write what I feel. I believe this takes a certain courage.”

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