Gay Geniuses and Icons: Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

Basic Facts about Samuel Barber

Barber produced most of best-known work in his 20s 

During the 1930s, Samuel Barber emerged as an implausibly promising young composer whose refreshing style would change American classical music forever.

But his subsequent style was very much in their spirit—and it was clear that critics had expected him to constantly break new ground, something that Barber had little real interest in doing.

Barber wrote most of his widely known non-operatic pieces—his Cello Sonata, his first symphony, his String Quartet (which included “Adagio for Strings”), “Agnus Dei” (a choral adaptation of “Adagio for Strings”), his first Essay for Orchestra, and his Violin Concerto—during the 1930s.

But he was consistently prolific, and didn’t really slow down until the 1970s.

He had already definitively established his style during the 30s, and because his style was unique, critics assumed they reflected interest in promoting specific compositional movement. They didn’t–they reflected Barber’s personal style as composer.

This made Barber too much of popular composer, too reliable and consistent, to be the sort of radically innovative and divisive figure many critics hoped he would become.

Barber got tired of hearing about “Adagio for Strings”

Barber’s own feelings about his popularity were a little mixed, grounded as it was in his “Adagio for Strings”—a piece from his String Quartet, championed by Arturo Toscanini, that subsequently became a radio standard after it was played at the funeral of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. Iconically used again for the funeral of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, it has become what music historian Thomas Larson calls “America’s secular hymn for grieving the dead”—adding weight to dramatic scenes in films both good and terrible (most famously among them The Elephant Man and Platoon). Larson went on to say:

The Adagio is a sound shrine to music’s power to evoke emotion. Its elegiac descent is among the most moving expressions of grief in any art. The snail-like tempo, the constrained melodic line, its rise and fall, the periodic rests, the harmonic repetition, the harmonic color, the uphill slog, the climactic moment of its peaked eruption—all are crafted together into one magnificent effect: listeners, weeping in anguish, bear the glory and gravity of their grief. No sadder music has ever been written.

Barber may have been moved to tears for other reasons. “They always play that,” he told WQXR in 1978. “I wish they’d play some of my other pieces.”

Over time, his career transitioned more to opera

Samuel Barber’s anthology-style operas Hermit Songs (1953) and Prayers for Kierkegaard (1954) demonstrated his ability to work in the medium, but lacked the sort of narrative arc more commonly associated with the genre. Barber’s first traditionally-structured opera was his Vanessa (1957), on which he collaborated with his partner, Gian-Carlo Menotti, a talented composer in his own right who had already written nine successful operas.

It was met with rave reviews, won the Pulitzer, and prompted Barber and Menotti to collaborate again on A Hand of Bridge (1959) and the 1975 revision of Antony and Cleopatra (1966).

Relationship with Menotti: Defining passion of his life

While Barber was still teenager at the Curtis Institute, he met fellow student Gian Carlo Menotti and began what would become six decades of friendship and mutual attraction.

In 1943, they purchased a large house (nicknamed “Capricorn”) together in New York’s Mount Kisco, and lived as a couple until 1974.

Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti in their villa, 1958 © Association Capricorn
Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti in their villa, 1958 © Association Capricorn