Samuel Barber


Born: March 9, 1910 – West Chester, Pennsylvania
Died: January 23, 1981 – New York City, New York


A few facts about Composer’s Samuel Barber


  • When he was 9 years old a very self-assured Samuel Barber wrote a letter to his 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 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—Sometimes I’ve been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very).
  • At the age of 10 he wrote his first operetta to a libretto by the family cook. He became church organist  at 12 and by the age of 14 had entered the youth artist programme at the renowned Curtis Institute.
  • His early experience as a singer performing regularly on NBC radio gave him insight into the voice and its ability to express deep emotions. Some two-thirds of his compositions were vocal including songs and operas.  He composed Anthony and Cleopatra for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House.
  • Though he wrote music into his 70s Barber’s later years were plagued by depression and alcoholism. Canzone, his final uncompleted work, was premiered after his death in 1981.


Adagio for Strings


Composed:  1936 (arrangement)
Premiered November 5, 1938 – the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini
Instrumentation:  Violins I & II, violas, celli, double bass

Performance Time:  9 minutes


  • Barber composed his String Quartet Op. 11 in 1936 and later that year arranged the second movement for string orchestra.
  • He sent it to Arturo Toscanini and the conductor returned it without comment several days later. The understandably upset composer was surprised when over a year later Toscanini sent word that he intended to premiere it at one of his radio concerts.  He had memorized the score and had simply returned it.
  • Critical reaction was positive though some dismissed it as a mere occasional piece and disputed its place in the standard repertoire. Barber, himself, expressed disappointment that it was played more frequently than any of his other works.
  • Voted “the saddest classical” music ever by BBC Today, it has often been performed at state funerals as well as commemorations and memorials of tragic events throughout the world. Most recently Kirill Petrenko conducted the Berliner Philharmonic in a concert of remembrance for the victims of Coronavirus.
  • Barber created a new arrangement in 1979 as a setting for the Agnes Dei. It was one of the last pieces he composed.
  • As well as serving as background score for several movies (The Elephant Man, Platoon) it has proven popular in European electronic dance music.


Using the repetition of a three-note theme Barber creates almost a staircase effect with a series of rising and falling dynamics. Each section has a turn with the melody building in intensity as it rises higher and higher in range. A moment of total silence precedes the final restatement of the theme.


There are many versions available however we can experience that first performance thanks to the recording made by NBC on November 5, 1938 with Toscanini conducting his NBC Symphony Orchestra.



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