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Samuel Barber
Samuel Barber


Samuel Barber was the most conservative and European-influenced of the major American composers of the 20th century, yet his expressive range was far wider than lovers of his most well-known works may realise. Barber began writing music during his Pennsylvania childhood, and at the age of 14 enrolled as one of the first students of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He studied composition with the traditionally-minded Italian, Rosario Scalero, and also singing. It was at the Institute that he met the Italian-born composer and librettist Gian Carlo Menotti, who would become his long-term partner.  Barber made many visits to Europe, and it was in Austria in the summer of 1936 that he wrote his only string quartet, arranging its soulful central slow movement for string orchestra in 1938. Premiered by the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini, the Adagio for Strings made Barber’s name. He was able to devote himself almost entirely to composing after abandoning his early activities as a singer, choral conductor and teacher. A long series of important commissions reached a climax with the opera Antony and Cleopatra, written for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1966. It was a failure however, and although the blame seems to lie with Franco Zeffirelli’s unwieldy libretto and production, Barber took it very personally. His last years were blighted by depression and alcoholism, though he went on composing almost up to his death. Antony and Cleopatra had a more intimate (and more successful) operatic predecessor in Vanessa, produced at the Met in 1958. Otherwise, Barber’s dramatic flair found expression only in a dance score, Medea or Cave of the Heart (1946), from which he later derived the orchestral suite Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance (1953). Barber wrote confidently for the orchestra from the early stages of his career, notably in his concise, dramatic one-movement First Symphony (1936). This had even more compact successors in the three Essays for Orchestra (1937, 1942 and 1978). But he adopted a larger scale for three concertos: the Violin Concerto (1936), sweetly lyrical until its perpetual-motion finale, the lucid Cello Concerto (1945) and the powerful Piano Concerto (1962). Barber’s String Quartet was a rare foray into chamber music, though the composer’s atmospheric single-movement Summer Music (1955) is an important contribution to the repertoire of the wind quintet. His major piano work is the Sonata (1949), written for the famous virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz. As a trained singer, Barber wrote extensively and gratefully for the voice. One of his early successes was Dover Beach, for voice and string quartet (1931). He wrote songs and cycles with piano throughout his career, including the Hermit Songs (1952–53), on medieval Irish texts, and the defiantly named Despite and Still (1968–69). He also wrote effectively for chorus, both unaccompanied, as in the cycle Reincarnations (1937–40), and with orchestra, as in the sacred Prayers of Kierkegaard (1953) and the decidedly secular The Lovers (1971). Barber made orchestral versions of several of his songs, and also wrote two contrasting scenas for voice and orchestra, Andromache’s Farewell (1962) and Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947/50). Knoxville’s specifically American subject – an idyllic reminiscence of childhood by James Agee – is uncharacteristic, but the perfect craftsmanship, memorable melodic lines and its psychological insight typify Barber’s work as a whole.

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