Samuel Barber, seated, making notes on his music. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
The Library of Congress is the preeminent repository for manuscripts by American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981). He was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania and educated at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Barber began his studies at the Curtis Institute in piano, voice and composition at the age of 14, which allowed the young Barber to develop his many musical talents in a supportive, but serious environment. His early development as a composer can be traced through his Early compositions, 1917-1927, and his collection of school compositions. Although his music has often been given the pejorative label "conservative," he continues to be one of the most frequently performed and recorded American composers of the twentieth century. In fact, Barber was one of the few composers of his time who had enough popular success to make his living only through composition. In an interview with John Gruen published in the New York Times (October 3, 1971) Barber had this to say about his compositional style:
As for my own music, I've never written a book about it. I'm not pedagogical... When I write an abstract piano sonata or a concerto, I write what I feel. I'm not a self-conscious composer. I think that what's been holding composers back a great deal is that they feel they must have a new style every year. This, in my case, would be hopeless. In fact, it is said that I have no style at all but that doesn't matter. I just go on doing, as they say, my thing. I believe this takes a certain courage.
In addition to his immense popular success, Barber's critical success included two Pulitzer Prizes. The first was awarded in 1958 for his opera Vanessa which was premiered by the Metropolitan Opera and the second in 1962 for his piano concerto. Manuscript copies of both of these works, along with many of Barber's other compositions can be found in the Library's general music collection under the call number ML96.B267. The majority of this material has been fully cataloged and holdings can be viewed through the Library of Congress Online Catalog.
Adagio for Strings
Perhaps Barber's most popular composition is his "Adagio for Strings" (1938). This piece is an arrangement for string orchestra of the second movement of his String Quartet, op.11. The premiere was given by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC orchestra, the recording of which was selected in 2005 for the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. The National Recording Registry was established by an act of Congress in 2000 to "maintain and preserve sound recordings and collections of sound recordings that are culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." The original manuscript of the work was given to the Library by Samuel Barber in 1943. The correspondence related to this gift can be viewed online in the Music Division's Performing Arts Encyclopedia. The contemplative mood and striking beauty of the piece has caused its association with times of public mourning beginning with the radio announcement of the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. It was later heard at the funerals of both Princess Grace of Monaco and Albert Einstein. Although it was not played at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, as is sometimes reported, it was featured in a special televised post-midnight concert by the National Symphony Orchestra, which was played without an audience in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The association remains a fixture of popular culture with the piece appearing in numerous film and television scores, including The Elephant Man, Platoon, Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain and three separate episodes of The Simpsons.
Concerts and Collaborations at the Library of Congress
The works of Samuel Barber have been performed many times in the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress. Beginning in 1938 with a performance of Barber's String Quartet, op. 11 by the Gordon Quartet, the Library of Congress and its supporting foundations have sponsored concerts and commissions highlighting the unique musical vision of Samuel Barber. Barber's String Quartet, op. 11 has been performed at the Library more than twenty times and his chamber music remains a fixture of the Library's concert series.
Samuel Barber's most significant commission to receive its premiere at the Library was his song cycle Hermit Songs, op. 29. Barber wrote the songs over the course of many months after becoming inspired by the Medieval Irish poetry which serve as their texts and taking his first trip to Ireland in 1952. The numerous notes and sketches associated with the composition of these songs are unusual for Barber, who usually wrote songs very quickly. The sketches can be examined online in the Library's Performing Arts Encyclopedia. The songs were officially commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation in 1953 for the annual Founder's Day concert celebrating Mrs. Coolidge's birthday. The commission came about a year after Barber had begun writing the songs, and they were not composed with a specific singer in mind. Both Eleanor Steber and the German soprano Irmgard Seefried were considered for the premiere before Barber decided that Leontyne Price, who had not yet given her recital debut, was the ideal choice. The song cycle was premiered in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress on October 30, 1953 by Ms. Price with the composer at the piano. The manuscript of Hermit Songs, as well as Samuel Barber's performance score are a part of the Coolidge Collection at the Library, found under the call numbers ML29c.B26 and ML29d.B27 respectively. The full recital has been commercially released on Bridge Records.
The decision to use Leontyne Price for the premiere of his Hermit Songs seems to have been a fortuitous one for Barber. In the following years, she was his vocal inspiration for three other important works. The first was as the soprano soloist in The Prayers of Kierkegaard (1954), a work for soloist, chorus and orchestra commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation. The manuscript of this piece as well as Barber's second Koussevitzky commission Die Natali, chorale preludes for Christmas, op. 37 (1960) are held in the Library of Congress in the Koussevitzky Foundation Collection under the call number ML30.3c. The second was the opera Antony and Cleopatra which was written for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966. The premiere was an infamous catastrophe which critical opinion seems to have blamed more on the unwieldy sets and costumes than Barber's music. The third piece written for Ms. Price was the song cycle Despite and Still, op. 41, which was premiered at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City on April 27, 1968.
Special Collections in the Music Division
The Library of Congress's Music Division holds vast numbers of special collections representing the legacies of many of the most important artists of the twentieth century. Samuel Barber's work intersected with many of these figures and related material can be found across many collections in the Music Division. In addition to the previously mentioned music materials held in the Coolidge and Koussevitzky Foundation collections, the Martha Graham collection holds important material related to Barber's dance pieces Andromache's Lament and Cave of the Heart (also known as Medea). Although the Library of Congress does not have a separate collection of Samuel Barber's correspondence, the letters he wrote to many friends and colleagues have made their way into the Library. Below is a partial list of special collections that contain correspondence with Samuel Barber.
Special Collections containing Samuel Barber correspondence:
- Leonard Bernstein Collection
- Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Collection
- Aaron Copland Collection
- Leonard Ellinwood Collection (ML94.E44)
- Ross Lee Finney Collection (ML94.F55)
- Serge Koussevitzky Archive
- Listen Magazine Letters (ML94.L6)
- Music Division Old Correspondence
- Dorothy Slepian Packer Collection
- Papers of the Joint Army and Navy Committee on Welfare and Recreation, Sub-Committee on Music
- Fabien Sevitzky (ML94.S55)
- Nicolas Slonimsky Collection
In the New York Times interview cited above, Samuel Barber, who was known for his wry wit, spoke about his position as an "American" composer.
I guess for better or for worse, I am an American composer, and I've had a wonderful life being exactly that. It's true I've had little success in intellectual circles. I'm not talked about in the New York Review of Books, and I was never part of the Stravinsky 'inner circle.' ... You know, years ago someone wrote a book about me, and when it was done, the proofs were sent to my sister. She sent me a telegram, saying "Have this book stopped. You're dull, but not that dull!"
Learn More about Samuel Barber
- G. Schirmer, Inc. composer page for Samuel Barber.
- Heyman, Barbara B. Samuel Barber the composer and his music. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
- Library of Congress, Song of America Project.
- Wentzel, Wayne. Samuel Barber A Guide to Research (Composer Resource Manuals). New York: Routledge, 2001.
This article was written by James Wintle, a reference specialist at the Library of Congress.