English Arts Chorale

Samuel Barber

In conversation with Catherine Nasskau


CN:  Mr Barber, it is interesting to meet you and to hear more about your life and work. You are known today as one of the most gifted American composers of your generation, composer of orchestral, opera, choral and piano music.

SB:  That is always hard for me to hear as I never felt comfortable in the public eye, and often suffered periods of agonising self-doubt.

CN:  I understand that you came from a musical family, and started composing when you were very young.

SB:  I always knew I wanted to compose. When I was nine, I wrote to my mother:

"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 nor my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now without any nonsense. To begin with I was not meant to be an athlete. 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-Sometimes I've been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very)."

I was indeed only 10 when I wrote a short opera entitled 'The Rose', and within two years I was holding down a $100-a-month organist's post in my home town in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

CN:  And a few years later you became one of the first pupils at the new Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

SB:  A great time, and where I met Gian Menotti, who became my partner in life as well as in our shared profession as composers. We lived together for forty years.

CN: You were very successful as a composer in the middle part of your life and won many awards, including two Pulitzer prizes and the Edward MacDowell Medal for outstanding contribution to the arts.  

SB: It was hard to believe, I grant you that. But my war years were uneventful. I returned to the Curtis Institute to lecture on composition in 1939 and a few years later, I joined the Army Air Corps.

CN: In addition to composing, you were also active in organisations that sought to help musicians and promote music. Could you tell us something about that?

SB: This was really important to me. I was President of the International Music Council of UNESCO, where I tried to do something about the conditions facing musicians and musical organisations worldwide. And I was also influential in the successful campaign to increase royalties paid to composers. That part of my life went well.

CN:  I think you were more celebrated as a composer than you like to admit. Toscanini so loved your Adagio, he persuaded you to arrange it for string orchestra; and in 1962 you won a second Pulitzer Prize for your Piano Concerto.

SB:  Sure. But when my third opera was not well received, I had to get away and I retired to the Italian Alps. I struggled with depression and alcoholism, but kept on composing until I was almost 70.  My 'Third Essay for Orchestra' was my last major work in 1978.  

CN:  In tonight's concert [2nd Dec 2017], the English Arts Orchestra will perform the Adagio in its familiar form with string orchestra. You might be interested to know that a few weeks ago, four players performed the whole quartet as you originally intended, so it will be an illuminating comparison. Did you know that this piece has earned a permanent place in the concert repertory of orchestra?

SB:  That is something, I guess. Thanks for letting me know.


Barber died of cancer in 1981 and was buried next to his mother in West Chester.


© 2017 Catherine Nasskau and English Arts Chorale Association

If your choir would like to use this material in your own concert programmes, please contact Catherine Nasskau at the EAC for permission.