SAMUEL BARBER: His Life and Legacy

By Howard Pollack

SAMUEL BARBER: His Life and Legacy. By Howard Pollack. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2023. 686 pp. Hardcover. $59.95

It has been more than 40 years since the death of Samuel Barber; 13 years have passed since his centenary. At this point it may be safely stated that Barber stands alongside George Gershwin and Aaron Copland as one of America’s three most prominent composers of concert music. (Leonard Bernstein was sui generis.) And he achieved this distinction without dipping into vernacular American styles as Gershwin did, or by embracing explicitly American subject matter as Copland did. Barber achieved his stature simply by composing music that spoke to audiences directly and often moved them deeply. I have often said that Barber’s music—his best-known works especially—was “beautiful” as that word is generally understood by the concert-going public. His output was not large: 48 works, not counting juvenilia, ephemera, or occasional pieces. But it is no exaggeration to state that most of his output has achieved the status of actively performed repertoire. The same cannot be said for Gershwin, most of whose music falls outside the world of “concert music,” or for Copland, the majority of whose music is rarely heard. Not surprisingly, the past few decades have seen a number of biographies of Barber, most notably Barbara Heyman’s from 1992, and her thematic catalogue, which appeared twenty years later, as well as examinations of his compositional output, and even an entire book on the Adagio for Strings (see 34:2). Now, Howard Pollack, Moores Professor of Music at the University of Houston, having completed highly praised volumes on Gershwin and Copland, among other American composers, has turned his attention to Barber. In so doing, he has drawn upon the work of his predecessors, while adding much additional information and a perspective of his own, based on considerable original research, producing a revealing work that will be fascinating to those with a serious interest in the composer.

The most illuminating aspect of Pollack’s revelations stems from his candid exploration of Barber’s lifestyle as a homosexual. While much of this—including his turbulent and unstable lifelong partnership with Gian Carlo Menotti—will not be news for those well-versed in the American compositional scene during the mid-20th century, most prior biographies have danced around this issue, referring to their “longstanding friendship” along with other “friendships,” etc. What is so revelatory about Pollack’s removal of the shroud of secrecy intended to camouflage the reality of Barber’s (and Menotti’s) romantic and sexual life is that it highlights the many aspects of his career that resulted from social connections that were direct outgrowths of this lifestyle. And what this candid exploration also reveals (by default) is that gay American composers and straight American composers followed very different career paths, resulting in a limited intersection of these two social groups. While an adequate elaboration of this point lies outside the scope of this review, I don’t believe that I am exaggerating its importance, because the additional information that emerges along with it includes direct quotations from Barber and his many friends and associates, which present a much clearer sense of Samuel Barber, the man, than we have been privy to in the past.

The impression gleaned from Pollack’s candid portrait is not altogether flattering to the composer, who appears from these anecdotes as unapologetically snobbish, contemptuous of those he deemed inferior, highly ambitious, prone to private ridicule of many of those who encouraged and supported his career, while being highly sensitive to criticism and rejection. One friend, in characterizing Barber’s patrician temperament, described him as “a victim of over-refinement.” I report these qualities without suggesting or implying that they detract in any way from the quality of his music, as my long years of association with composers have taught me that a composer’s personal qualities have no connection to the quality of his/her creativity, while they may, of course, affect the course of his/her career. Furthermore, despite much criticism of the familiar musical language in which he chose to express himself, Barber remained true to his values and ideals, while maintaining meticulous standards of craftsmanship and a largely unflagging level of inspiration rooted in his exquisite emotional sensitivity.

But Pollack’s revelations make abundantly clear that the most significant contribution to Barber’s stellar career was his birth into an affluent, socially privileged family already connected to the music world through his aunt, the internationally celebrated contralto Louise Homer, and her husband, the erstwhile distinguished composer Sidney Homer. Mary Louise Curtis Bok, philanthropist and founder of the Curtis Institute of Music, supported him both financially and socially from his teens until her death in 1971. The path from the charmed life of his childhood to his “adoption” by Mary Louise Curtis Bok, to his period of study at the Curtis Institute, which resulted in the composition during his twenties of music that would bring him international acclaim, led to premieres of his music directed by Arturo Toscanini—then the world’s most celebrated conductor—before the composer had reached the age of 30. And this was just the beginning! Throughout the following decades Barber—along with Menotti—enjoyed a life among the wealthiest and most celebrated poets, writers, musicians, musical administrators, dancers, and choreographers of his time. While far from asserting that Barber’s “silver-spoon” background elevated the stature of a minor talent, one cannot deny that such personal associations contributed to the continued prominence and advancements of his career. (Pollack reports Barber’s assertion in 1962 that the Adagio for Strings earned for him the equivalent in today’s dollars of $300,000 per year!) And one may speculate that while his good fortune elevated Barber’s reputation as an exceptional example of a composer who achieved success without pursuing “originality” through the innovative experimentation that attracted so many of his contemporaries, his prominence served to obscure the accomplishments of other traditionalist composers of comparable quality. (Leonard Slatkin is quoted as saying that almost any American composer who embraced a melodic style was influenced by Barber. With all due respect to Maestro Slatkin, this is more an admission of ignorance than an accurate statement concerning Barber’s degree of influence.)

The other significant revelation provided by Pollack’s book is the result of his re-examination of the circumstances surrounding the highly publicized, alleged failure of Barber’s opera Antony and Cleopatra, commissioned for the opening of the “new” Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966. According to familiar accounts, everything went wrong during the premiere performances, from Franco Zeffirelli’s overly elaborate staging and costumes that obscured Barber’s music, which was Hollywood-style emotionalism and exoticism anyway, to malfunctions of complicated stage machinery that had not been sufficiently prepared. So, the story goes, Barber sailed for Europe immediately after the premiere, only learning of its dismal reception from European friends. This disaster was said to have sapped the composer’s creative drive, leaving him unable to produce works of any consequence, in a state of depression exacerbated by alcoholism. But Pollack has delved deeply into press accounts of the premiere, recollections of those who were in attendance, as well as of others who were close to the composer at that time in his life. Pollack concludes—and provides convincing evidence—that this oft-repeated account is drastically exaggerated, including much that was simply not true. The details are too numerous to recount here, but perhaps the main points are that the audience (if not many of the critics) responded with great enthusiasm to the new work, a revision and subsequent performances have confirmed the high quality of the work, and in 1971 Barber did complete a major masterpiece: the half-hour cantata for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra The Lovers, based on poetry by Pablo Neruda. This profoundly moving work has been largely ignored since its composition—perhaps because it challenges the familiar account of the denouement of Barber’s life.

With a study of this magnitude, some quibbles are inevitable. Those that irk me the most might be attributable to “excessive academicism,” manifested in a—perhaps unconscious—attempt to draw Barber’s contribution closer to the “mainstream” of composition at the time. I observed this in Pollack’s discussions of individual works, in which he seeks to find affinities with antecedent composers that strike me as rather far-fetched, while perhaps understating the essential integrity and individuality of Barber’s own voice. (The equivalent would be a book on Brahms that focuses on the connections in his music to Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, rather than on the unique qualities of Brahms’s own musical identity.) The other point—not unrelated to the foregoing—attempts to portray Barber’s use of a smattering of twelve-tone passages within harmonic contexts that confirm the music’s essentially late Romantic tonality, as indications that he was more receptive to modernist innovations than is usually acknowledged.

But aside from these relatively minor points, the book is a major accomplishment in deepening our understanding of a composer whose music finds ever-broadening appreciation. I recommend it to the composer’s many admirers as well as to others interested in the turbulent stylistic dynamics that permeated American music during the twentieth century.

Walter Simmons