Samuel Barber (1910-1981)



To many people, Barber is something of a one-hit wonder with his hugely popular Adagio for Strings.

Yet he was one of the most frequently performed composers of the 20th century, both in Europe and America.

Donald Macleod begins his exploration of Barber's life and works with a selection of pieces with which he was introduced to the American nation in his first radio broadcast.

3 Songs, Op 2, No 1, The Daisies

Leontyne Price (soprano)

Samuel Barber (piano)

The School for Scandal overture, Op 5

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

David Zinman (conductor)

Dover Beach for voice and string quartet, Op 3

Samuel Barber (baritone)

Curtis String Quartet

Sonata for cello and piano, Op 6

Ralph Kirshbaum (cello)

Roger Vignoles (piano)

Music for a scene from Shelley, Op 7

Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Neeme Järvi (conductor).


Barber's trip to Europe triggered a love for its society and culture which continued for the rest of his life.

While spending the summer of 1936 in the Tyrolean Alps, Barber set to work on a string quartet.

But he was only happy with the slow movement which took on a life of its own as the famous Adagio for Strings.

Donald Macleod introduces the vocal arrangement Barber himself made of the piece, plus a performance of his first symphony, premiered while he was studying in Rome; and Barber's first major orchestral commission, written on the eve of the Second World War.

Strings in the Earth and Air, for voice and piano

Cheryl Studer (soprano)

John Browning (piano)

Symphony No 1, Op 9

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

David Zinman (conductor)

Agnus Dei for chorus, arr.

for Adagio of Quartet for strings

Dunedin Consort

Concerto for violin and orchestra, Op 14

New York Philharmonic Orchestra

Leonard Bernstein (conductor).


In 1942, Barber received his call-up papers but was given a non-combatant role which enabled him to continue composing.

Donald Macleod introduces three of Barber's wartime orchestral works, plus his sublime setting of James Agee's poem Knoxville, Summer of 1915.

Essay for Orchestra No 2, Op 17

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

David Zinman (conductor)

Symphony No 2, Op 19, final movement

Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Neeme Järvi (conductor)

Capricorn concerto for flute, oboe, trumpet and strings, Op 21

Jacob Berg (flute)

Peter Bowman (oboe)

Susan Slaughter (trumpet)

St Louis Symphony Orchestra

Leonard Slatkin (conductor)

Knoxville - Summer of 1915, for soprano and Orchestra, Op 24

Dawn Upshaw (soprano)

St Luke's Orchestra


By the time Barber reached the age of 40, he was in constant demand, both as composer and conductor.

He was invited to London to record his cello concerto with the soloist Zara Nelsova.

Donald Macleod introduces the final movement from that vintage recording, plus two commissions - one to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the League of Composers and the other a chamber piece for the principals of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Sonata for Piano, Op 26, in E flat m

John Browning (piano)

Concerto for cello and orchestra, Op 22

Zara Nelsova (cello)

New Symphony Strings

Samuel Barber (conductor)

Hermit songs for voice and piano, Op 29, No 8, The Monk and his Cat

Leontyne Price (soprano)

Samuel Barber (piano)

Summer Music for wind quintet

Michael Thompson Wind Quintet

Prayers of Kierkegaard for soprano, choir and orchestra, Op 30

Chicago Symphony Chorus

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Andres Schenk (conductor).

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Donald Macleod introduces works from Barber's final years, including highlights from the opera written in collaboration with his partner, Gian Carlo Menotti.

Plus two concertos written with particular performers in mind - pianist John Browning and principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic, Harold Gomberg.

2 Songs for unaccompanied chorus, Op 42, No 2, To be sung on the water

Oregon Repertory Singers

Gilbert Seeley (conductor)

Vanessa - Opera in 4 acts, Op 32, Act 1 (The drawing room.

A night in early winter)

Vanessa....Christine Brewer (soprano)

The Old Baroness....Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)

Erika....Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano)

Anatol....William Burden (tenor)

The Old Doctor....Neal Davies (bass-baritone)

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Leonard Slatkin (conductor)

Concerto for piano and orchestra, Op 38

John Browning (piano)

Cleveland Orchestra

Georg Szell (conductor)

Canzonetta for oboe and string orchestra

Julia Girdwood (oboe)

Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Jose Serebrier (conductor).

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Donald Macleod charts Barber's early years under the wing of his singer/composer uncle.

He's seen as one of the great Apple Pie composers, the man who showed that American music was at last ready to be taken seriously.

But in the year of Barber's centenary, is this a realistic summary of a man whose work is still relatively unknown amongst the general public save for his mega-hit choral work 'Agnus Dei', itself a reworking of a movement from his first string quartet?

This week Donald Macleod tells the story of the real Samuel Barber, from his childhood experiences playing amongst the shipping tags at his grandfather's factory to his final years, when he was mortally scarred by the failure of what was supposed to be his crowning achievement in music.

Along the way, he charts a number of relationships which were to make a defining impression on him, including rare interview footage with the likes of composer Gian Carlo Menotti (Barber's lifelong partner), Aaron Copland, and also the soprano Leontyne Price who became one of his most trusted collaborators.

An even more complex relationship which he battled with throughout his career was that with his country.

Despite becoming that emblem of national pride, Barber never felt comfortable as a cultural ambassador for America.

Even when he joined the army it was very much on his own terms, in fact he displayed impressive negotiating skills in carving himself the perfect niche as a composing combatant, able to call upon all manner of military performing resources.

But Donald Macleod begins Barber's story closer to home, in West Chester Pennsylvania, where the composer forged perhaps the most influential musical relationship in his life.

His singing uncle, Sydney Homer, was to be a constant inspiration, always at hand to encourage his nephew as he became one of the first ever students at the Curtis Institute.

Barber even followed him into an early singing career, as we hear in some of the few commercial recordings he made.

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Donald Macleod charts Samuel Barber's relationship with composer Gian Carlo Menotti.

Donald Macleod charts Barber's relationship with the composer and librettist Gian Carlo Menotti, including Menotti's own recorded thoughts on his first impressions of the American composer when they met at music college.

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Donald Macleod considers Barber's collaborations with the great musicians of his age.

Few composers commanded as much respect and affection amongst the great perfomers of his age as Samuel Barber.

Today, the musical results of their collaborations as Donald Macleod takes us from an intimidating encounter with Francis Poulenc to the mountain retreat of Arturo Toscanini.


Donald Macleod charts Samuel Barber's ambivalent relationship with his country.

He may have been one of America's greatest cultural exports, but Barber was never quite the model patriot.

Donald Macleod charts the composer's ambivalent relationship with his country, including a spell in the army which was always very much on the musician's terms.

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Donald Macleod charts Barber's final years, troubled by alcoholism and creative blocks.

When Barber got the call from the New York Met asking him to provide the first opera in its new theatre Barber realised it was potentially the defining moment of his career.

Sadly it turned out to be one of the great disasters of operatic history.

Donald Macleod assesses the effect all of this had on the composer, and charts his final years troubled by alcoholism and creative blocks.