Samuel Barber

1910–1981

Romantic/20th Century

Samuel Barber was one of the most beloved composers of the 20th century. You’ve probably heard his piece Adagio for Strings before: it began as part of a string quartet, but then Barber arranged it for a whole string orchestra and it’s now become a big part of popular culture. It’s been featured in famous movies and TV shows like The Simpsons and Gattaca. It was even played at Albert Einstein’s funeral!

Little Samuel was an early starter – he wrote his first piece of music when he was only seven years old. By that time he’d only been playing the piano for about a year. He was very ambitious and hard-working, and he started trying to write an opera – a huge project – when he was just 10. He studied composition, piano and voice at university, where he met another composer – an Italian called Gian Carlo Menotti. The two lived and worked together for the rest of their lives, helping each other write better music. Barber became famous pretty young, and he won more or less every award on offer, including not one but two Pulitzer Prizes. Still, despite being a celebrated prodigy, he wasn’t very confident. He even tried to destroy his Second Symphony, tearing up the score, because he didn’t think it was good enough. Barber wasn’t the only composer or writer to do that sort of thing – why do you think that might be? Should we try and reconstruct the music if the composer didn’t want us to hear it? Or is it better to let the composer have the final say?

Barber was a very talented pianist, but he had a lovely singing voice too. In fact, he convinced the manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Rudolf Bing, to put on his opera Vanessa by singing him the whole thing! The public liked it too, and Vanessa helped put 20th-century American opera on the map – it sounds surprising but before then, many people thought an American couldn’t write big, grand operas like that. Barber proved them wrong!

Samuel Barber, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Sample Samuel Barber’s works...

Adagio for Strings

Sad and beautiful, this is definitely Barber’s most famous piece. It’s appeared in all sorts of films and TV shows – it was even played at Albert Einstein’s funeral!

Performers: Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559088

Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24

This song sets a text – called a ‘prose poem’ – by the American writer James Agee. It’s very nostalgic and lush, describing Knoxville from the perspective of a little boy.

Performers: Karina Gauvin, soprano; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559134

Vanessa: Act I, Scene 1: Do not utter a word, Anatol

This is a famous aria from one of Barber’s most successful operas. It was inspired by a story by Karen Blixen, the popular Danish author.

Performers: Ellen Chickering, soprano; National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine; Capella Dumka; Gil Rose

Taken from Naxos 8.669140-41

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 How many Pulitzer Prizes did Samuel Barber win?

a. Ten
b. Two
c. Three

 Which instrument did Samuel Barber play?

a. Piano
b. Flügelhorn
c. Violin

 Who wrote most of the libretti (the words) for Barber’s operas?

a. James Agee
b. Pierre Boulez
c. Gian Carlo Menotti

 How old was Barber when he wrote his first piece of music?

a. Eight
b. Seven
c. Four

 What was Barber’s vocal type?

a. Baritone
b. Tenor
c. Bass


Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Barber decided to become a professional composer at the age of nine.
  2. In 1942 Barber joined the American Air Force.
  3. Barber was not simply a talented pianist; he was also a very gifted singer.
  4. Barber won not one but two Pulitzer Prizes!
  5. Barber’s Adagio for Strings was played at Albert Einstein’s funeral.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Opera and Solo Vocal Music


Vanessa (excerpts)

This is a famous aria from one of Barber’s most successful operas. It was inspired by a story by Karen Blixen, the popular Danish author.

Performers: Ellen Chickering, soprano; National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine; Capella Dumka; Gil Rose

Taken from Naxos 8.669140-41


Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24

This song sets a text – called a ‘prose poem’ – by the American writer James Agee. It’s very nostalgic and lush, describing Knoxville from the perspective of a little boy.

Performers: Karina Gauvin, soprano; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559134

Orchestral Music


Adagio for Strings

Sad and beautiful, this is definitely Barber’s most famous piece. It’s appeared in all sorts of films and TV shows – it was even played at Albert Einstein’s funeral!

Performers: Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559088


Violin Concerto, Op. 14

Barber’s Violin Concerto was commissioned in 1939 for Iso Briselli, a brilliant young violinist. In the end Briselli didn’t like it much! But many other people think it’s beautiful. What do you think?

Performers: James Buswell, violin; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559044


Serenade, Op. 1

Guess how old Barber was when he wrote this piece? 18!

Performers: Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559044


Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23a

This piece was adapted from his earlier ballet suite Medea, boiling it down to the best bits.

Performers: Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559133

Pieces for Piano, Great and Small


Piano Concerto, Op. 38

Barber’s Piano Concerto was premiered in 1962 by John Browning. It’s incredibly virtuosic, and became hugely popular.

Performers: Stephen Prutsman, piano; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559133


Piano Sonata, Op. 26

Barber’s Piano Sonata was first performed by Vladimir Horowitz, one of the 20th century’s greatest pianists. Everybody loved it – and they still do!

Performers: Daniel Pollack, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559015


Excursions, Op. 20

Barber’s ‘excursions’ here are into different American musical styles. He’s giving you a tour through different sound-worlds!

Performers: Daniel Pollack, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559015


Nocturne (Homage to John Field), Op. 33

John Field was a 19th-century composer who popularized the nocturne as a genre for piano. Barber is paying him tribute in this lovely piece.

Performers: Daniel Pollack, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559015

Choral Music


A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, Op. 15

In 1940 Barber based this dramatic choral piece on a poem by Stephen Spender about a soldier losing his life in the Spanish Civil War. Unusually, he uses prominent percussion.

Performers: Ben Dickson, timpani; Ormond College Choir; Douglas Lawrence

Taken from Naxos 8.559053


2 Pieces, Op. 42

The English author Laurie Lee, famous for a novel called Cider with Rosie, wrote the words for these pieces, which are composed for unaccompanied choir.

Performers: Ormond College Choir; Douglas Lawrence

Taken from Naxos 8.559053