'Samuel Barber: His Life & Legacy' - Howard Pollack's biography of the gay composer

  • by Laura Moreno
  • Monday September 25, 2023
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Biographer Howard Pollack (photo: University of Houston)
Biographer Howard Pollack (photo: University of Houston)

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is one of the greatest classical American composers of the 20th century. His music is greatly loved for its rich complexity, depth of feeling, and beautiful craftsmanship.

Author Howard Pollack (who also wrote biographies of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin) has written a comprehensive biography (744 pages) rich with information about Samuel Barber's private and professional life, his music, and his place in the canon. In addition, Pollack takes us behind the scenes to witness the arduous and extremely expensive (and still profitable) preparations for his performances during his lifetime.

Barber may be best known for his rapturously beautiful "Agnus Dei" (Lamb of God), commonly known as "Adagio for Strings." Composed at age 26, it's been popularized in the films "Platoon" and "The Elephant Man" and was widely broadcast after 9/11. Barber's soul-stirring music unifies people at such times.

But during his lifetime, Barber's music was considered old-fashioned by some, even though it contains modern elements such as harmonic complexity and dissonance, making it truly Neo-Romantic music.

Aware of the criticism, Barber was known to at times count the number of white-haired old ladies who walked out during a performance, considering it evidence of his success as a modern composer. But his genius was recognized by his peers. Leonard Bernstein called his music "absolute beauty," the title of a documentary film about Samuel Barber.

Composer Samuel Barber (photo: Wikipedia)  

A Coming Out of Sorts
At age 8, little Samuel Barber wrote a remarkable note to his mother:

"Notice to Mother and nobody else — Dear Mother: I have written this to tell you my worrying secret. Now don't cry when you read it because it is neither yours or my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now without any nonsense. To begin with, I was not meant to be an athlet [sic]. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I'm sure. I'll ask you one more thing. Don't ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football. Please. Some-times [sic] I've been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very).
Love, Sam Barber II

His mother gave him piano lessons and Barber also studied cello and singing. He got an inside look at the world of opera due to his aunt Louise Homer being the star contralto for the Metropolitan Opera. Her husband Sydney Homer, although his star has since waned, was a working composer whose operas were performed by the Met.

Just as importantly, Barber would sit listening for hours as the family's Irish maid sang folk songs she learned as a child, imparting a life-long love of Irish lore and music that he would later incorporate into his compositions. More than a dozen of his often performed piano pieces were written before Barber was 13 years old.

Barber & Menotti
At Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti, Italian-American music student studying composition, met and fell in love. Barber's mother would attend Menotti's recitals as well as her son's. Later the entire Barber family would regularly visit their New York City apartment. The composers even hosted a family wedding in their home. The family, it seems, saw them as bachelors sharing an apartment and never questioned anything beyond that.

Although Barber and Menotti had very different personalities, they would remain beloved friends for the rest of their lives, even after a painful breakup. Barber was prone to melancholy and alcoholism, but the strain in their relationship did not appear until Menotti's career began to eclipse Barber's own. Menotti won two Pulitzer Prizes in Music, a highly unusual feat later accomplished by Barber as well.

Barber's music is vaguely reminiscent of the beautiful, sensitive, passionate music of Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, the 19th-century Russian Romanic composer, who was also gay. Tchaikovsky wrote "The Nutcracker Suite," "The 1812 Overture" and many other beloved pieces.

Musicians love playing both Barber and Tchaikovsky if they can; both men sometimes wrote music so difficult it is beyond the skill level of many professional orchestras and soloists.

While meeting with Soviet composers in the U.S., Barber said, "...artist[s] quickly bridge frontiers. Music brought us together." The positive experience prompted him to finally accept an invitation to Moscow for a Congress of Composers in 1962. He dined with Kruschev and travelled a great distance to see the country home where Tchaikovsky grew up.

The fierce competition between the U.S. and USSR had a very positive impact on the arts, without which no nation can claim to be great. Unbelievably, although the U.S. was far poorer than now, TV networks had their own in-house symphany orchestras, and music programs were fully funded in the schools. We were not about to let the Soviets boast superiority in any area.

Unfair Criticism
In 1966, Barber's opera "Antony & Cleopatra" premiered, starring Leontyne Price and led by gay artists Alvin Ailey (choreography), Franco Zeffirelli (libretto), and Thomas Schippers (conductor), had a cast of 300 and cost $1.2 million to produce. The production employed magnificent stage effects, such as Cleopatra floating her barge down the entire length of the enormous Met stage.

The audience included First Lady "Lady Bird" Johnson, Robert and Ted Kennedy, Marc Chagall, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (whose presence drew hundreds of war protestors outside the hall), heads of state and many luminaries. The standing ovation lasted nearly 30 minutes, and the champaign reception afterward lasted until midnight.

Everyone at Lincoln Center that night, including Barber, felt the opera had been a success until the next day when the reviews were published. But at least some critics seemed to be taking subtle digs at the artists for who they were.

Price's resonant soprano voice "went all Southern and flat," one critic wrote, adding that he doesn't say so "because she is Negro."

Harold Schonberg's scathing New York Times critique "in truth seemed coded in homophobic language and ideas," biographer Pollack writes. Schonberg complained of "Barber's failure to explore the text's subject, "love between a man and a woman," and wrote that the opera exhibited "queer ideas current these days in certain circles of the Metropolitan Opera," even calling it a "Swinburnian melange of sad, bad, mad, glad" (Swinburne being a poet associated with sexual transgression).

Pollack writes, "Schuyler Chapin, then VP of Lincoln Center, recalled that the review caused something of a scandal, even though he himself thought [it] 'a fag show,' and on becoming General Manager of the Met in 1972, moved to break up what he regarded as the company's homosexual 'mafia.'"

Julliard later revived the "failed" opera to great fanfare. This is just one of many historical moments in Barber's life brought to enlightening focus in this fascinating biography.

'Samuel Barber: His Life & Legacy' by Howard Pollack, University of Illinois Press, $59.95 hardcover. www.press.uillinois.edu

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