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American composer Samuel Barber would have been 100 years old today. Barber was a favorite with musicians and audiences, but his music didn't fare as well with critics. They tended to write it off as merely pretty, but in the decades since Barber's death, that opinion has begun to change. From Philadelphia, Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: Samuel Barber's music has gone way beyond the concert hall.

(Soundbite of song, "Adagio for Strings")

ROSE: Barber's "Adagio for Strings" swells up in dozens of films. It's been played at ground zero in New York and at official state funerals. It's become, in a way, our national music of mourning.

Ms. BARBARA HEYMAN (Biographer): Everybody knows the Adagio even if they don't know the name of it or who wrote it. They recognize it as soon as they hear it as this elegiac, wonderful piece of music.

ROSE: Barbara Heyman wrote a biography of Samuel Barber. He grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania. When he was nine, he wrote a letter to his mother asking her not to make him play football. Barber had other plans, as he said in a 1978 interview.

Mr. SAMUEL BARBER (Composer): I was seven years old when I began composing. I began composing, improvising at the piano, the usual story. I was supposed to be a doctor. I was supposed to go to Princeton. Everything I was supposed to do I didn't.

ROSE: Instead, Barber went to the brand-new Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He was just 28 years old when Arturo Toscanini's NBC Orchestra gave the first performance of the "Adagio for Strings."

(Soundbite of song, "Adagio for String")

ROSE: While the piece made Barber famous, it also cast a long shadow over the rest of his career. Johanna Keller is a professor of journalism at Syracuse University, who's working on her own book about Barber.

Professor JOHANNA KELLER (Journalism, Syracuse University): I think Barber had his problems with the fact that the Adagio became so popular. It seemed to eclipse some of his other works.

ROSE: Barber was not a prolific composer. He published only one symphony, two operas and a handful of sonatas and concertos.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Barber carefully tailored his work to the strengths of the musicians who would play it. And Johanna Keller says those musicians loved him for it.

Prof. KELLER: They understood its quality. They understood how well it worked for the instruments and for voices, critics not so much.

ROSE: In particular, critic and composer Virgil Thomson. He dismissed Barber as a composer for, quote, high middlebrow taste. And Barber's music does sound conservative next to the atonal, modernist style in vogue in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. If the scathing reviews bothered Barber, he tried not to show it. Here he is talking to Robert Sherman on WQXR in 1978.

ROBERT SHERMAN: To what extent did you take the words of critics to heart?

Mr. BARBER: Very little. I once learned that the best thing to do about criticisms was to pay no attention to them but to measure them.

Mr. SHERMAN: Measure them meaning what?

Mr. BARBER: No, measure how long they were.

Mr. SHERMAN: Oh, I see. So the longer they are, the more important the source.

Mr. BARBER: Of course. Yes. I've told that to many young composers and nobody ever listens.

ROSE: It's an approach that worked well for Barber early in his career, as he produced a string of works that are still widely performed, including "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" for soprano and orchestra.

(Soundbite of song, "Knoxville: Summer of 1915")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) It has become that time of evening where people sit on their porches rocking gently and talking gently...

ROSE: But Barber's reputation took a major hit in 1966 at the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House. Biographer Barbara Heyman says the first performance of his opera "Antony and Cleopatra" was a disaster.

Ms. HEYMAN: The production had all this paraphernalia that was going on, including something like 60 animals on stage and, you know, tremendous cast, so noisy that you couldn't hear the music in some instances.

ROSE: "Antony and Cleopatra" wasn't Barber's only setback. It was around the same time that he split with his longtime partner, composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Barber published very little after that and died in 1981.

Ever since, critics have been revising their opinions of his work, says Barbara Heyman.

Ms. HEYMAN: I think he was more experimental than people give him credit for. He's not backward-looking, really. He just incorporated the elements that worked in his music from contemporary harmonic language.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JENNIFER HIGDON (Composer, Teacher, Curtis Institute): Barber would sound great now. I think he actually, if he were coming into his own now, I think he probably wouldn't be receiving the criticism that he got when he was younger.

ROSE: Jennifer Higdon is a composer and teacher at Barber's alma mater, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Higdon is one of many younger composers who use traditional tonality in their music. She says they all owe a debt to Barber.

Ms. HIGDON: He had a lot of people who were saying, oh, you shouldn't be doing this. This isn't the advancement of music. And he did it. And he did it with such conviction and with such beauty, that it's hard not to be convinced.

ROSE: For all his influence on younger composers like Higdon, Barber remained very much his own man.

Mr. BARBER: I can only say that I myself wrote always as I wished, without a tremendous desire to find the latest thing possible.

ROSE: In hindsight, the wisdom of that approach is hard to dispute.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

(Soundbite of music)

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