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Samuel Barber, from prodigy to icon

Samuel Barber BannerFebruary 2019

By Malcolm Johnstone

West Chester PA – West Chester’s favorite son, classical music composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981), was born in West Chester to a musical family living at 35 South High Street. A brass plaque marks the location. It says, quite simply, Barber -- Born 1910. Within a few years, the family relocated to South Church Street near Miner Street, where two historic markers identify the red brick house as his childhood home. The markers also note that he wrote the Alma Mater for West Chester High School.

Image: graphic of banner installed on East Gay Street as part of the downtown West Chester banner project implemented by the West Chester Borough Public Arts Commission.

He began writing music at the age of seven and began performing his works by the age of nine, all of which were very well received. The Daily Local News actually reviewed one of his early concerts saying: “Sam was at his best. The manner in which he executed different selections brought round after round of applause.”

Samuel was accepted into the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music when he was just fourteen. As a young man he relocated to New York City where he was able to find the performers, the venues, and the audience that would appreciate his music. He spent his life dedicated to writing for solo instruments, orchestra, opera, and voice.

On a personal note, during my college years I was a music major studying classical guitar and composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. There, we would often discuss the current trends of contemporary classical music. We agreed that Samuel Barber was THE master of melody – melody tightly woven into a harmonic balance that, while there may be a rich dissonance at times, provides a quality of sound and expression seldom equaled by others.

Perhaps the greatest gift of Barber’s music is the ability to have it partnered with other artistic platforms. His Adagio for Strings, for instance, has been part of numerous film scores. Even the Brandywine Ballet, along with the Brandywine Singers, have used it to expand the expressive qualities of both music and dance. This is exactly what Samuel Barber would have encouraged and it serves as a continuing legacy for his contribution to the musical arts.

The Barber Foundation, locally established by the late Ulrich Klabunde, continues to champion Samuel Barber’s music, life, and legacy. There is no doubt that Barber holds a firm position as America’s preeminent composer.

See also: Samuel Barber was nine-years-old when he first performed his own music.



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