The Barber of Philadelphia

Classical Music Features   The Barber of Philadelphia
The Philadelphia Orchestra continued to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Samuel Barber's birth with recent performances of his Violin Concerto. Barber biographer Barbara B. Heyman discusses his life and work.


I never met Samuel Barber: he died a year before I began work on his biography in 1982. But in the 25 years we've been cohabitating, as it were, I have come to know intimately his voice, his aspirations, his struggles, and his heartaches: primarily through his letters, his diaries, and interviews with classmates, family, friends, and performers who knew and worked with him.

Barber was one of a generation that wrote and kept letters, and he was a prolific and eloquent writer. His classmates, his parents, his friends, his lovers, all kept his letters and were generous in making them available to me. Many of the performers who premiered his music were eager to share their recollections of Barber and his advice on performance of his music. He had a unique way of working with artists: a collaborative relationship, whereby he wrote to the strengths and predilections of those who would premiere his music.

Samuel Osmond Barber II was born on March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His dad, Roy Barber, was a physician; his mother, Marguerite ("Daisy"), was an amateur pianist. In his heart Barber was a singer. From the age of five he expressed his creativity primarily through song: in his words, "Writing songs just seemed a natural thing to do." One might say that virtually all his instrumental music is vocally inspired.

From his earliest years, Sam Barber knew he wanted to be a composer. He declared this in the now infamous letter to his mother: "I suppose I will have to tell you now without any nonsense. To begin with, I was not meant to be an athlet [sic]. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I'm sure. I ask you one more thing: Don't ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football." Many years later, at the peak of his career, Barber spoke about his parents' ambitions for him: "I was supposed to be a doctor. I was supposed to go to Princeton. And everything I was supposed to do, I didn't. ..."

To his parents' credit, once they realized that there was no redirecting the goal of their impassioned son, they did everything they could to encourage his musical education. Roy Barber even exercised his power as chairman of the local School Board to pass a rule that any student who was a composer could take Fridays off from school to attend concerts of The Philadelphia Orchestra. At this time the Orchestra was under the direction of the young Leopold Stokowski, whose fervent demeanor provided Philadelphians with spirited performances and repertory that they had not experienced from the Germanic conductors who preceded him. Although Stokowski was not as innovative as he would be in his later years and his taste was still catholic, by the time Barber attended his concerts the conductor had presented more French and Russian music than had previously been programmed at the Academy of Music. In January 1925 Barber was in the audience that heard Stravinsky conduct a program of his own works, including Fireworks, the Firebird Suite, and Petrushka.

Aiding and abetting Barber's mission were his maternal aunt, the celebrated opera singer Louise Homer, and her husband, the composer Sidney Homer. Louise Homer was one of the leading contraltos of the early decades of the 20th century. She sang with the Metropolitan Opera from 1900 to 1920, and after she retired, she performed many of her nephew's teenage efforts on her nationwide concert tours, for which they received excellent critical reviews.

Sidney Homer is one of the heroes in Barber's story: The wisdom and optimism that he transmitted to his nephew for more than 25 years fostered Sam Barber's ambition, supported his inclination to adhere unwaveringly to the Romantic style, and inspired the direction of his intellectual development. It is rare that a mentor can sustain his influence for as long as Homer did. Letter after letter from Sidney Homer to his nephew presents explicit messages. He preached the value of sincerity: "Listen to your inner voice": at the same time he held up earlier masters as role models: "You remind me of Richard Strauss [or Beethoven, or Mozart, or Hugo Wolf] when he was at your stage." And, paradoxically, Homer was a visionary: he espoused an anti-elitist point of view: "You must take into your confidence that vast body of music lovers. ... Art is common property and a world force."

But Sidney Homer allowed no sniveling from his nephew, no whining. For example, in 1930 when Stokowski gave a reading of the 20-year-old student composer's Piano Concerto at a rehearsal of The Philadelphia Orchestra and then turned it down (the Orchestra later went on to give six world premieres of Barber works, including the Violin Concerto, the Overture to School for Scandal, and Medea), Homer wrote a letter to his dispirited nephew that could have been equally relevant after the premiere many years later of Barber's opera Antony and Cleopatra: "A rhinoceros hide is a good thing: the bigger the talent the tougher the hide, say I. Wagner had a good one; so did Beethoven. Resentment eats the heart, but philosophy is an armor that protects the source of future work which is the one thing that must be kept inviolate."

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Mary Curtis Bok Zimbalist and Samuel Barber in 1960

And if there is another hero in Barber's early musical life, it was surely Mary Curtis Bok, daughter of the prominent publisher, who founded the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1924. Her educational philosophy, stated in the Institute's catalog, reflects the standard to which Barber was exposed during his nine years at the Institute: "It is my aim that earnest students shall acquire a thorough musical education, not learning only to sing or play, but also the history of music, the laws of its making, languages. ... They shall learn to think and express their thought against a background of quiet culture, with the stimulus of personal contact with artist-teachers who represent the highest and finest in their art. The aim is for quality of the work rather than quick showy results."

Mary Bok was more than a philanthropist in the traditional sense. Beneath her gentle, calm, wise, and gracious exterior was a forceful spirit that pervaded the Institute and was imbibed by her students. She actively dedicated herself to bringing their talents to fruition by giving her students personal encouragement as well as financial support. "We call her Mrs. God," Barber wrote in his diary.

When the 14-year-old Barber entered the newly founded Curtis Institute of Music, commuting from home while he was still in high school, he soon distinguished himself as a pianist, a composer, and a singer. At 16 and a full-time student, he was given special permission to hold a triple major. A Curtis education involved more than training in musical skills; the required course in Comparative Arts, for example, included lectures and readings in English, German, French, and Italian Romanticism, art, architecture, and poetry. For Barber, who was already an avid reader, the expansion of his literary knowledge opened the door to the poetry that inspired his songs. At 17 he wrote in his diary: "I spend much more time looking for the poems than setting them." And indeed, the 1920s and '30s show a prolific number of songs. But literature informed his early instrumental compositions as well: Dover Beach (1931), the Overture to The School for Scandal (1931), Music for a Scene from Shelley (1933): and would continue to do so to the end of his career (Fadograph of a Yestern Scene; The Lovers). Even the title Essay, of which he wrote three (1937, 1942, and 1978), has a literary association.

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Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti

It was also at the Curtis Institute that Barber met Gian Carlo Menotti. Because Menotti spoke only Italian and French, Mary Bok asked Barber, who was fluent in French, to take the younger composer under his wing as a big brother. Their mutual interests in hiking, literature, and especially Brahms solidified their relationship. In 1941, with the help of Mrs. Bok, they bought a home, "Capricorn," overlooking Croton Reservoir in Mt. Kisco, New York; the common living area, with a studio at each end of the house, was an ideal arrangement for the two composers who lived together for 30 years. They collaborated on three operas: Menotti wrote the libretto for Vanessa and for the chamber opera A Hand of Bridge, and with Barber revised the libretto and staging of Antony and Cleopatra.

Barber had an early and meteoric rise to fame. Many of the works he wrote in his 20s and 30s are still in the repertory today: the Overture to The School for Scandal, the Violin Concerto, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and of course, one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century, the famous, ubiquitous Adagio for Strings, which, when broadcast by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony in 1938, brought Barber nationwide attention.

During the mid-20th century, Barber's music: along with Copland's: was the most frequently played of American composers in Europe and the Americas. He was one of only a handful who could make a living entirely by composing. He won many prizes and received many important commissions.

If his music was less popular during the late 1960s and '70s, it was not: as some would have you believe: merely because of the vitriolic reception of the overblown, accident-prone, Zeffirelli production of Antony and Cleopatra (which opened the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center), but rather the result of a growing trend toward a more experimental style. Yet, to set the record straight, Barber's royalty statements from the '60s to the end of his life in 1981 suggest that his stature and the frequency of performances of his music did not wane at all.

Although many view Barber as a conservative in the reactionary sense, rather I consider him a conservator. A telling inscription appears on the last page of a sketchbook he kept during his student years at the Curtis Institute of Music in the 1920s and '30s:

There is a degree of innovation beyond which one does not pass without danger: Lamartine had the gift of seizing the exact point of permissible innovation.

These are Franz Liszt's words, but surely they are Barber's credo. He knew just how far to go without disrupting the continuity with tradition.

Today Barber's music gains new significance within the current trend of the New Romanticism. There is a certain irony that at this moment of extraordinary technological advance, the very machines that allow us to communicate instantly across the globe have, at the same time, created a climate of depersonalization, devoid of emotional nuance. And it may be that at such a time, music that is unabashedly romantic: that elicits so direct an emotional response: becomes more valued.

Barber brought new vitality to the harmonic language of the late 19th century, incorporating elements of 20th- century modernism: dissonance and even serialism: without compromising lyrical expression. Melody is central. Yet, even though he was never compelled to rebel against conventional musical practices, the personal voice that pervades his music is very much of his time: what T.S. Eliot referred to as "the generous influence of tradition."


Upcoming Barber Celebration performances:

- Stéphane Denève and violinist James Ehnes perform the famous Violin Concerto (November 12_ã_14)

- Andrey Boreyko leads the first Philadelphia Orchestra performances of Night Flight (February 12_ã_16)

- Associate Conductor Rossen Milanov conducts the Overture to The School for Scandal (February 18_ã_20)

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Musicologist and editor Barbara B. Heyman, a native of Philadelphia, is the author of the award-winning
Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music (Oxford University Press, 1992, 1994). Her Comprehensive Thematic Catalog of the Complete Works of Samuel Barber is forthcoming next year, and she is working on a revised, expanded edition of the biography as well as the Collected Letters of Samuel Barber.

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