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Samuel Barber At 100, Reconsidered

American composer Samuel Barber would have been 100 years old Tuesday. He was a favorite with musicians and audiences, but Barber's music didn't fare as well with critics, who tended to write it off as merely pretty. Still, in the nearly three decades since his death, that's begun to change, and his music has gone way beyond the concert hall.

Barber's Adagio for Strings swells up in dozens of films. It's been played at ground zero in New York, and at official state funerals. It's become, in a way, our national music of mourning.

"Everybody knows the Adagio even if they don't know the name of it, or who wrote it," says Barbara Heyman, a Barber biographer. "They recognize it as soon as they hear it as this elegiac, wonderful piece of music."

Barber grew up in West Chester, Pa. When he was 9, he wrote a letter to his mother asking her not to make him play football. Barber had other plans — in a 1978 interview, he talked about the role composition played in his childhood.

"I was 7 years old when I began composing," he said. "I began composing, improvising at the piano, the usual story. I was supposed to be a doctor. I was supposed to go to Princeton. Everything I was supposed to do, I didn't."

Instead, Barber went to the brand-new Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Later, at 28, Barber got a big break when his Adagio for Strings was premiered in a live radio broadcast by the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini and his NBC Orchestra.

While the piece made Barber famous, Johanna Keller, a professor of journalism at Syracuse University, says it also cast a long shadow over the rest of his career.

"I think Barber had his problems with the fact that the Adagio became so popular," Keller says. "It seemed to eclipse some of his other works."

Barber was not a prolific composer. He published only one symphony, two operas and a handful of sonatas and concertos. Barber carefully tailored his work to the strengths of the musicians who would play it. And Keller says those musicians loved him for it.

"They understood its quality, how well it worked for the instruments and for voices," she says. "Critics, not so much."

'High Middlebrow'

In particular, critic and composer Virgil Thomson dismissed Barber as a composer for "high middlebrow taste." And Barber's music does sound conservative next to the atonal, modernist style in vogue in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. If the scathing reviews bothered Barber, he tried not to show it. In 1978, he told WQXR's Robert Sherman that he "learned that the best thing to do about criticisms was to pay no attention to them."

It's an approach that worked well for Barber early in his career, as he produced a string of works that are still widely performed, including Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for soprano and orchestra.

But Barber's reputation took a major hit in 1966, at the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Heyman says the first performance of his opera Antony and Cleopatra was a disaster.

"The production had all this paraphernalia that was going on, including something like 60 animals, a tremendous cast," Heyman says. "So noisy, you couldn't hear the music."

Antony and Cleopatra wasn't Barber's only setback. It was around the same time that he split with his longtime partner, composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Barber published very little after that, and died in 1981. Since then, Heyman says, critics have been revising their opinions of his work.

"I think he was more experimental than people give him credit for," she says. "He's not backward-looking, really. He just incorporated the elements that worked in his music from contemporary harmonic language."

Jennifer Higdon, a composer and teacher at Barber's alma mater, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, speculates that Barber would sound great today.

"If he were coming into his own now," she says, "he probably wouldn't be receiving the criticism he got when he was younger."

Higdon is one of many younger composers who use traditional tonality in their music. She says they all owe a debt to Barber.

"He had a lot of people saying, 'You shouldn't be doing this. This isn't the advancement of music,'" she says. "And he did it. And he did it with such conviction and such beauty that it's hard not to be convinced."

For all his influence on younger composers like Higdon, Barber remained very much his own man. He once said, "I can only say that I myself wrote always as I wished, without a tremendous desire to find the latest thing possible."

In hindsight, the wisdom of that approach is hard to dispute.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.