In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Samuel Barber

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Interviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Archival Collections
  • Opera Studies
  • Reception
  • World War II
  • Cold War

Music Samuel Barber
Jeffrey Wright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0068


Samuel Barber, born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1910, knew from an early age that he wanted to compose music. Under the guidance of his uncle, the composer Sidney Homer, and his aunt, the Metropolitan Opera contralto Louise Homer, Barber quickly developed his innate musical abilities. He entered the Curtis Institute as part of the inaugural class in 1924, and it was here that he met his lifelong friend and partner Gian Carlo Menotti. Barber composed some of the most popular pieces of American art music, from his Adagio for Strings to his Knoxville: Summer of 1915. In addition to this success, Barber won two Pulitzer Prizes during his career and was commissioned to write an opera for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. The composer died of cancer in 1981. In his 2001 research guide on Samuel Barber, Wayne Wentzel (see Bibliographies) asserts that “serious studies of Samuel Barber and his music are not numerous.” While the scholarly literature on Barber remains comparatively small in relation to his presence and popularity in American culture, the state of Barber research is much improved compared to earlier in this century. Today, articles on Barber can be found in some of the leading musicological journals (American Music and Journal of Musicology, for example), and while Barbara Heyman’s 1992 biography (see Biographies) remains the only book-length study devoted entirely to Barber, a new generation of scholars are emerging who have embraced her book as a basis for more specific studies of Barber’s life and his relationship to the general development of American music.

General Overviews

General overviews of Barber’s life are often included within studies that divide attention among several composers with some common thread, such as neo-Romanticism (Simmons 2004) or sexual orientation (Felsenfeld 2005). There are also depictions of Barber that were completed during his lifetime which provide snapshots of the composer at various times in his life, and can provide insight into the reception of Barber by critics and other composers. Heinscheimer 1968 provides a first-hand description of Barber, and Heyman provides a brief scholarly overview of Barber’s life based on archival documents.

  • Felsenfeld, Daniel. Britten and Barber: Their Lives and Their Music. Pompton Plains, NJ: Amadeus Press, 2005.

    Presents connections between Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber, both biographically and musically. The main points of connection between the two figures are their reputations as musically conservative composers and their shared homosexuality.

  • Heinscheimer, Hans W. “The Composing Composer: Samuel Barber.” ASCAP Today 2 (December 1968): 4–7.

    Presentation of Barber as a modest man focused on nothing but his composing. Heinscheimer recounts the famous story of he and Barber drinking together, discussing Barber’s Second Symphony, and heading to the office of Schirmer, Barber’s publisher, to destroy every copy in the library.

  • Heyman, Barbara B. “Samuel Barber.” In Grove Music Online.

    Brief overview of Barber’s life and works, the most scholarly of all the overviews.

  • Simmons, Walter. Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2004.

    Simmons devotes a chapter each to Barber and five other American composers usually dubbed as neo-Romantics. His condensed biography of Barber is one of the stronger short studies of Barber’s life.

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