Collection Title: Samuel O. Barber Collection
Collection Number: MS Coll 263
Dates of Collection: 1921 – 2010
Extent: 3 boxes; 0.9 linear feet
Repository: Chester County History Center, West Chester, PA
Project Archivist: Richard McKinstry and Judy Ng
Samuel Osmond Barber II was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania on March 9, 1910. His father, Samuel Le Roy Barber (1879-1947), was a medical doctor and president of the West Chester school board for 25 years. His mother, Marguerite McLeod Beatty Barber (1881-1967), was a pianist. The eldest of two children, Barber dedicated many of his early works to his sister, Sara Fulton Barber. Barber’s maternal aunt, Louise Homer (1871-1947), was a leading contralto at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and his uncle, Sidney Homer (1864-1953), was a composer of art songs, a type of vocal music composition typically written for one voice with piano accompaniment.
At a young age Barber had a belief that his career would be in music. At the age of 9, Barber began studying with William Hatton Green, a renowned piano teacher in West Chester who had studied under Theodor Leschetizky, one of the founders of the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music in Russia. When Barber was 10, he wrote his first operetta, The Rose Tree, and at 12, he became an organist for West Chester’s Westminster Presbyterian Church. At 14, he entered the youth artist program at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he developed his talents in composition, voice, and piano, while still attending public school in West Chester.
At West Chester High School, Barber was a noted scholar and participated in numerous extracurricular activities, including the Latin, French, music, and drama clubs, and was the editor of the literary yearbook. In 1928, Barber graduated from West Chester High School and immediately afterward entered the adult professional program at Curtis from which he graduated in 1934. During this period of study, Barber met fellow composition student, Gian Carlo Menotti, who would later become a personal and professional life partner. At the age of 18, Barber won the Joseph H. Bearns Prize from Columbia University for a violin sonata, and when he was 21, he won his second Bearns Prize for The School for Scandal, an orchestral work.
Early in his career Barber was a professional baritone, at one point holding a weekly singing contract with NBC radio; however, his forte remained with musical composition. In 1938, Arturo Toscanini directed Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Essay for Orchestra for the NBC Symphony Orchestra. In 1942, Barber joined the Army Air Corps and remained in service until 1945. In addition, he wrote several compositions for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, including his Second Symphony, which he had originally entitled Symphony Dedicated to the Air Force.
Following World War II, Barber wrote a ballet suite, Medea, for Martha Graham. In 1946, the U.S. State Department chose Barber to be a member of a delegation to the first Prague Spring International Music Festival where his music was performed with other American composers, including Leonard Bernstein. Also in 1946, Barber received a Guggenheim fellowship and studied privately with noted conductor George Szell. In 1949, Barber’s composition, Piano Sonata, which had been commissioned by Irving Berlin and Richard Rogers to mark the 25th anniversary of the League of Composers, achieved critical acclaim. During the 1950s, Barber conducted his own works with several symphony orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1958, Barber won his first Pulitzer Prize for his opera Vanessa, and in 1962, he won his second Pulitzer for his Piano Concerto, which had been commissioned for the opening of Lincoln Center. Also in 1962, Barber became the first American to go to the Congress of Soviet Composers, which convened in Moscow.
During the 1960s, Barber suffered issues with his health, and his opera Antony and Cleopatra (1966) did not win the critical praise to which he had become accustomed. Eventually Barber divided his time between his home in Mount Kisco, New York and his chalet in Santa Christina, Italy where he spent long periods in isolation. Even so, he was active in writing music until he was nearly 70 years of age.
Barber was hospitalized for the treatment of cancer off and on between 1978 and 1981. He died of the disease on January 23, 1981, in his Manhattan apartment. His funeral took place at the First Presbyterian Church, West Chester, and he was buried in the Barber family plot at Oaklands Cemetery, also in West Chester.
The Samuel O. Barber collection measures 0.9 linear feet and dates from 1921 to 2010. Found within the collection are biographical materials and correspondence relating to Barber’s early years in West Chester. The collection also includes printed and manuscript materials, including a selection of brochures, programs, sheet music, and original drafts of early compositions kept by Barber during his youth.
The Samuel O. Barber collection measures 0.9 linear feet and dates from 1921 to 2010. Found within the collection are biographical materials, including two 1923 recital programs for performances at the First Presbyterian Church in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a West Chester High School diploma, and a printed score of the WCHS alma mater, which Barber composed in 1926.
Correspondence relating to Barber’s early years in West Chester dates from 1925 to 1927. Business correspondence primarily consists of mailings from garden clubs and publishing/mail order catalogs. There is also one letter from the Library of Congress regarding the steps required to secure copyright registration for published works.
Personal correspondence from the Barber family includes travel correspondence from Barber’s parents and an undated letter from Sara to Samuel with commentary on five songs. There are also letters in reply to Barber’s newspaper ads in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin regarding German lessons and a room rental, and one letter from the composer Carl Thomas Whitmer.
Printed material includes a copy of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, which was given to Barber by his uncle, Sydney Homer; a brochure listing the 1924-1925 faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music; catalog price lists and receipts; and newspaper clippings of Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti. Publicity and program materials are included for two of Barber’s operas, Antony and Cleopatra and Vanessa, as well as sheet music composed by Barber published between 1940 and 1950. There are also additional programs from performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra (1924), the Philadelphia Music League (1925), and the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York (1937), along with sheet music by other composers, including Beethoven, Carl Faelten, Christoph Gluck, Benjamin Godard, Charles-Louis Hanon, and Stanley Reiff.
Manuscripts include original scores written by Barber, both titled and untitled. These are primarily early compositions by Barber, and include songs from his operetta The Rose Tree, as well as “An Old Song” (1921), “Themes” (1923), and “Thy Will Be Done” (1924). An oversized, 140-page handwritten copy of Barber’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra Op. 38 is also included, as is a photocopy of “Chorale for a New Organ,” a work Barber wrote for the Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Manuscripts are arranged as 4 Series:
The Chester County History Center also holds food service objects in the Museum collection that were donated by the Barber family.
Series 1: Biographical Materials, 1923 – 1976
Series 2: Correspondence, 1925 – 1927
Series 3: Printed Material, 1921 – 2010
Series 4: Writings, 1921 – 1970