THE AMERICAN classical music composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) grew up in wealthy suburban Philadelphia, part of a music-loving family that included his aunt, Metropolitan Opera star contralto Louise Homer, and her husband Sydney, a minor composer. As a result, young Sam was able to meet and move in the world of the major figures in the East Coast classical music scene at an age when most music students would have just been looking on in awe from afar. A new book by Howard Pollack, Samuel Barber: His Life and Legacy, covers the life and music of one of American classical music’s best-known composers.
Barber gained admission to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, then as now one of the nation’s great music schools. There he studied composition, but also voice and piano, with thoughts of pursuing all three professionally. At Curtis, he also met and fell in love with the Italian-American music student Gian Carlo Menotti, who would himself go on to compose some of the most successful American operas of the 20th century, including the Christmas classic Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951). Barber and Menotti lived together and remained lovers for years, functioning as a couple in a world that evidently didn’t contemplate that they might be anything more than friends.
Barber was able to travel to Europe in the late 1920s and ’30s. There he met conductor Arturo Toscanini and other luminaries, and got to hear some of the avant-garde music of the time. While he was always aware of this kind of music and later incorporated more of it into his compositions, he never strove to be at the cutting edge of Modernism.
Richard M. Berrong, a professor of French literature at Kent State, makes documentary films about World War II in France.