Composer Profile: Samuel Barber, Pulitzer Prize Winner Of A Great American Opera

By David Salazar

Samuel Barber was one of the great American composers of the 1900s.

Born on March 9, 1910, he grew up in Pennsylvania and expressed great interest in music from an early age. He composed his first work “Sadness” at age seven and at age 10 attempted his first opera “The Rose Tree.” He became even more serious about composition throughout his late teens; he also studied piano throughout his youth. During his teens, he met Gian Carlo Menotti, who would not only be a major collaborator of his throughout their respective careers but also would become his life partner.

He experienced major success at the Curtis Institute and won the Joseph H. Bearns Prize from Columbia University at the age of 18.

He found tremendous success throughout his 20s, with his “Adagio for Strings” becoming arguably his most famous piece.

He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1958 for his opera “Vanessa” and in 1963 for his Piano Concerto. He also received the Rome Prize and an election into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was also an elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He was also commissioned to write the opera that would open the Met Opera’s new theater in Lincoln Center. Unfortunately, that work, “Antony and Cleopatra,” would not be a great success and the rejection of the work left him depressed.

He died of Cancer on Jan. 23, 1981.

Major Works

In terms of operas, Barber only composed three. Of those, only “Vanessa” has managed to find somewhat of a place in the standard repertoire, albeit very intermittently. The opera has been a vehicle for notable sopranos and some passages from the work have also been recorded and performed extensively outside of the context of the opera.

Read More on Barber

A Look At “Antony and Cleopatra”

Watch and Listen

Here is a recording of “Vanessa” starring Eleanor Steber, Rosalind Elias, and Nicolai Gedda.


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