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Samuel Barber: Of the generation of Benjamin Britten, Samuel Barber is the American composer who, in his approach to composition and in his own style, most resembles Britten. As a child and a young man, he was taught to sing by his aunt, the famous contralto Louise Homer. He began composing while still a child, and then studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He continued his singing lessons, under the baritone Emilio de Gogorza, and also received instruction in pianoforte and conducting, the latter from Fritz Reiner. Samuel Barber is, then, extremely well-educated musically, and his baritone voice has been put to the service of other people's music as well as his own. His teacher in composition at the Curtis Institute was Rosario Scalero.
Graduating from the Institute in 1932, Samuel Barber embarked upon a career as composer. His musical language was so accessible, and his skill in orchestration so assured, that he quickly became successful. Not only was his music liked, he also had a gift for winning prizes, among them the Pulitzer Prize (twice) and the Prix de Rome. He was only twenty-seven when, in 1937, his 'Symphony in One Movement' became the first work by an American composer to be performed at the prestigious Salzburg Festival. The music he wrote in the 1930s could be described as neoromantic in style, and this is a style which, despite his flirtations with other techniques of composition, Samuel Barber has never completely abandoned. The lyrical, yet ardently romantic Adagio for Strings, which dates from this period, is Samuel Barber's best-known composition. It began as the slow movement of a String Quartet, but was later extracted and orchestrated by the composer. An equally attractive work is Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a piece for soprano and orchestra whose words are by James Agee. During the war years, Samuel Barber's music began to develop in various directions. His work in the Army Air Corps led him to introduce into his second symphony a tone generator which simulated the sound of a radio beam used for night flying. But when he revised the symphony after the war, Samuel Barber removed the tone generator. By this time, he had begun to be interested in ballet, and had provided the score of Serpent Heart for Martha Graham's ballet on the subject of Medea.
Samuel Barber's later music has not escaped the influence of Stravinsky, but his voice remains an individual one. He is a friend of the opera composer Gian-Carlo Menotti, and it was to a large degree at the instigation of Menotti that Samuel Barber turned to opera with Vanessa, for which Menotti provided the libretto. Vanessa was produced by the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1958 and was subsequently staged at the Salzburg Festival in the same year. When the Metropolitan Opera moved to its new home at Lincoln Centre in 1966, Samuel Barber was commissioned to compose the opening opera. The result was Anthony and Cleopatra which provided Leontyne Price and Jess Thomas with two strong roles well suited to their vocal capabilities. Samuel Barber remains one of the most attractive personalities in American music, uninfluenced by current fashions but by no means to be dismissed as old-fashioned.
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