Samuel Barber: His Life and Legacy

A new book by the distinquished biographer Harold Pollack

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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Music historian Harold Pollack’s comprehensive biographies on American composers including Aaron Copland, Elliot Carter, Marc Blitzstein. This year he has published “Samuel Barber: His Life & Legacy.” It is, indeed, among his best.

Pollack did research and analysis on Barber’s entire canon, from childhood songs he wrote to his most challenging opera. This volume brings fresh perspective to his legacy with new interviews and fresh analysis from the composer’s colleagues, friends, and collaborators in other fields. Pollack doesn’t back away from chronicling Barber’s personal life, with a fine-line portrait of a celebrated gay composer whose status made it possible to override entrenched oppression and hostility against homosexuals in mid-20th century America.

Born in 1910, Barber’s grew up in a musical family in West Chester, PA. . His father, Samuel, was a physician and his mother, Marguerite, gave him his first piano lessons, but he was also picking up the cello on his own. He started formal lessons at eight. At age ten, he announced to his mother in a formal letter, that he fully intended to be a composer.

By 14 Barber was studying at the Curtis Institute of Music. Meanwhile, his aunt Louse Homer was a popular contralto at the old NY Met and her husband Sidney was a noted composer of tradition American songs. As a teen Barber was building a career as baritone, singer of traditional and art songs by his uncle. He was so successful he was performing professionally on stages and on the radio. Pollack gives a vivid, era evoking account of Barber’s early family life.

Pollack is a consummate musicologist in his detailing of the composer’s full canon- concertos, operas, choral, folk songs,  and symphonic works. Some of it can get heavy-going for readers who would expect a linear narrative of Barber’s life.. Pollack takes an unconventional approach in structuring the book, with different chapters focusing on chronological events and others where the circumstances and musicology of his canon are analyzed in depth. In his introduction, Pollack instructs that it’s OK to skip around to chapters of interest as Pollack chronicles the evolution, development and impact of Barber’s major and minor works.

His most famous composition was immortalized as ‘Adagio for Strings,’ which Barber later adapted as a choral work as well. In the US it is mostly performed on mournful occasions. Leonard Slatkin said that he was so moved conducting it at Proms in London days after the 9/11 attack that he collapsed in his dressing room, it affected him so much.

Then there were the motives behind the music, vis-à-vis Barber’s life; his mastery of form, affinity to Brahms, and his emergence as a member of the group of ‘neoromantic’ composers. Barber resisted such categorizations, even if he would agree concerning specific compositions, Including ‘Adagio for Strings’ cited for its structural aesthetics with its roots in Gregorian Chant, tapping into a somber symphonic and choral architecture from antiquity that spoke to contemporary audiences. There are stories about ‘the Adagio’ being composed when Barber and Menotti were very happy together in a summer chateau in Austria. In a letter to a colleague at Curtis, Barber wrote that the slow movement of his Violin Concert was ‘a knockout.’ 

Throughout the book there is revelatory focus on Barber’s lifelong relationship with Carlo Menotti, which began when they both were at Curtis, where it was an open secret. Even during their student trips to Europe, they were invited as a couple. They were both repeated guests in Toscanini’s villas and in elite musical circles in Paris, Vienna, and Italy. Pollack strikes a fine balance of candidness and sensitivity. Barber and Menotti’s privileged lives insulated them from the harsh reality for gay men abroad and in the US where homosexuality was a criminal offense in every state except Illinois until the mid-60s.

Later in life Menotti and Barber had flings, affairs, and relationships on the side, mostly in middle-age when they were living apart for long stretches. Many, fleetingly, were with younger men in the music world, but a few lasted for years. Gian Carlo was involved with Francis Phelan, an aspiring Italian actor that Menotti cast in character roles in his opera. He eventually legally adopted him, so he would be heir to the composer’s estate.

Barber remained a guarded person socially and certainly publicly, even though he was by all accounts erudite, engaged, and charming in public. Paul Willke, a senior editor for Barber’s music publisher for many years observes that he was no one’s fool. “ Often he was with you, and yet he was not.  Even so, he always managed to be polite and solicitous. Far from being flighty,” adding ” he could be tough….“he got what he wanted.”

Adding “His heart was rarely on display, well concealed under his…patrician manner. But his heart was large, his wit hid his sensitivity. His melancholy was his response to the sadness of the world.”
As guarded as Barber was in many respects, he could be ungenerous and even snarky about his contemporaries. Indeed, Barber suffered bouts of depression and self-doubt. And often outsized reactions to criticism. Meanwhile he was prone to giving backhanded compliments and sometimes unsparing critiques of his contemporaries. He had strained professional relationships with Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson, Leonard Bernstein, and famously with Ned Rorem, who is quoted as saying to Barber “we’ve been at odds for so long, should we bury the hatchet? to which Barber responded, “and lose an enemy? No, thank you!”

As Barber aged, he was less prolific, basically composing one large work a year. There were also instances where he took years creating a work. Barber took six years to complete his groundbreaking Piano Concerto.

As driven as Barber was to expand his aesthetic, in his personal life his personality was hard to pin down. He could be charming and beguiling, but just as quick to be caustic and biting. Generous to colleagues and competitive, but often brutal in his assessment of their compositional strengths. These traits eventually caused tensions in his relationship with Menotti.

The 50s and 60 were intense for both composers. Menotti produced a new opera with noted success. ‘The Medium’ broadcast on television in 1948. Barber became one of the most revered composers of his generation.

The couple avoided working together for several understandable reasons, but with “Vanessa” Barber’s first opera, Menotti wrote the libretto and the only difficulty was that he was used to working with the composer in real time. Barber refused to complete the score until Menotti completed the libretti. In the end both were very satisfied with the piece. A flashpoint for critical praise and derision, at its premiere in at the old Met in 1958, it garnered audience and critical praise. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Months later at its premiere in Saltzburg, the audience yawned and many critics were mocking and negative.

Pollack chronicles its creation in detail, its performance history, and the critical response, then and now. Pollack weighs in in the final lines of this long chapter “However viewed, ‘Vanessa’ commands the stage with her soaring, leaping chromatic melodies.”

The two chapters devoted to ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ Barber’s only operatic collaboration with Menotti, is for the record music reportage (I took the author’s advice and skipped to these pages early) It was the opera that premiered along with the opening of The Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York.

The lavish production starred mezzo-soprano Leontyne Price and was staged by Italian director Franco Zeffirelli. The set was so elaborate that it broke the turntable stage, the first of many production mishaps (at one point Leontyne Price was trapped in a Pyramid.) Everything was overdone and Barber’s score got lost in the spectacle of it with at one point 300 supernumeraries in a battle scene. The two chapters devoted to this correct a lot of backstage lore and discuss Barber  taking a drumming by the US critics. The opera received a better reception by the European press. In its later revivals away from the bloated Met debut, and a defining recording with Price reprising her role, it merits were finally reassessed as being a laudable opera created by a modern American composer.”

The chapters of Barber’s last years, in declining health and a circle of devoted friends and colleagues, along with Menotti at his side much of the time, is movingly reported by Pollack.

Barber didn’t enjoy the fame and reputation of some of his contemporaries, but along with two Pulitzers, he garnered many other accolades. Some appreciation was late in coming. Pollock’s book shows the breadth of his music and adds to the literature and understanding of his work.

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