Samuel Barber (1910 – 1981 ) was born to a distinguished, wealthy Irish-American family in Pennsylvania. His father was a doctor and his mother a pianist. He began composing music seriously when he was just a teenager. While studying Composition and Theory at Philadelphia’s The Curtis Institute, he met and fell madly in love with Gian Carlo Menotti, who became his partner in music and life. They became inseparable.
You might think that you have never heard of him, but Barber’s most famous composition Adagio For Strings is familiar to almost everyone in Western Civilization. It was written while he and Menotti spent a summer in a rented house near Salzburg in 1936. This eight-minute piece was meant to be the second movement of a string quartet. Menotti sent a version he had arranged for string orchestra to conductor Arturo Toscanini, who championed it two years later. It is now one of the most familiar popular Classical Music pieces. It is the perpetual most downloaded classical piece on iTunes.
While a student at The Curtis Institute, Menotti spent a lot of time at the Barber family home. After graduation, the two men bought a house together in Mount Kisco, NY. They named the place “Capricorn” and shared it for more than 40 years. Capricorn had two independent studios, one for each of the composers. They were connected by a central room used for living and entertaining. This has long been the living arrangement and dream for me and the husband.
Barber and Menotti were both very handsome men, especially Menotti with his classic Italian looks. Barber was a clean cut, and a slightly preppy All- American type, right out of a Calvin Kline ad.
Over the decades, Menotti’s romantic interest in Barber began to slip away. From what I have read about Barber, Menotti was that charming combination of saint and devil, capable of great kindness, but at other times full of intrigue. He was a flamboyant, extravagant man, who collected houses in the USA and Europe.
They broke up in 1973 over Menotti’s interest in guys half his age. The end of their relationship contributed to the decline in Barber’s health. In 1974, Menotti surprised everyone by adopting his boyfriend Francis Phelan, an actor and sometime figure-skater, as his son.
Barber was badly affected by the criticism of his later compositions and spent many years in isolation as he grew older, suffering from depression. He was humiliated to see Menotti in relationships with men half his age.
Barber was taken by that damn cancer in 1981, at 71 years old. Menotti had stayed by Barber’s side during the last stages of his cancer and was Barber’s greatest advocate until his own death. Barber is buried in Westchester with an empty plot next to his grave that was reserved for Menotti. But, when this former lover left this world in 2007, he was buried at one of his many houses, this one in Scotland.
Spoleto Festival USA was founded in 1977 by Menotti, creating an American counterpart to his annual Festival Of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. It is one of our planet’s leading festivals, presenting more than 200 world premieres. Many notable artists performed at the festival early in their careers, including Renée Fleming, Emanuel Ax, and Joshua Bell.
Well into his 80s, Menotti had a handsome, young driver in Charleston, SC, for the duration of the Spoleto Festival, as befitting its founder. When the driver was replaced one year by someone less blessed by pulchritude, Menotti threw a hissy fit, insisting that his former driver be found immediately.
Phelan appeared in non-singing roles in several of Menotti’s operas. He took the last name of Menotti when he was adopted. Phelan was 36 years old when they became a couple; Menotti was 63. To make the story even nuttier, Phelan married a woman, even though the two men were still together. Menotti and his son had a reputation for being nearly impossible to work with as directors of their international music festivals.
Menotti left this world in 2007 at 95 years old. Now, he is not nearly as remembered while Barber’s star shines bright.
Barber was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize, for his opera Vanessa (1956–57) and Concerto For Piano And Orchestra (1962). At the time of his death, all his compositions had been recorded.
Barber’s Antony And Cleopatra (1966), on which he collaborated with Franco Zeffirelli, and not Menotti, was a critical failure with an enduring legacy. It was the first production at the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, an overproduced retelling of a Shakespearean story, and a gaudy, unwelcoming mess. It was canceled after a single performance at the Met. Barber blamed creative differences between himself and Zeffirelli.
Coda: even Classical Music fans may not know that Barber himself arranged his Adagio For Strings for chorus (1967) under the title Agnus Dei. The composition, in both instrumental and vocal forms, is often performed during funerals. It was played live at the services for Franklin D. Roosevelt, Princess Grace of Monaco, and Albert Einstein. Jacqueline Kennedy arranged for it to be played by The National Symphony Orchestra on the Monday after John F. Kennedy‘s murder. They played to just Mrs. Kennedy and an empty hall, but it was broadcast on radio.
“They always play that piece. I wish they’d play some of my other pieces.”
Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty (2017), a documentary film by H. Paul Moon, is a smartly done exploration of his music and melancholia. Now streaming on Video on Demand.