Harbouring an ambition to sing from an early age, Samuel Barber left his home town of West Chester, Pennsylvania, to study at the Curtis Institute at the age of 14. His natural vocal talent was brought forth into a fine baritone and he received instruction in composition from Scalero. Barber gave serious thought to making singing his profession, and he was able to combine his two main loves by including his own work in vocal recitals, moving on from recitals at the institute to live radio broadcasts and concerts in Vienna.
Barber won the Bearns Prize from Columbia University in 1928, the first of many such accolades he was to receive. The money enabled him to travel, vital both for broadening the mind and in Barber's case to make the sort of contacts he would need as a composer. While in Italy in 1935 he met conductor Arturo Toscanini, impressing the maestro with his compositions. When Toscanini came to America he conducted the premieres of Barber's Second Symphony and his Adagio for Strings, his most famous piece. Originally a movement from his 1936 String Quartet, the Adagio was adapted a second time in the late 1960s - Barber used the music to set the Agnus Dei text, and the subsequent choral work renewed the work's popularity.
Barber lived with a fellow composer and graduate of the Curtis Institute, Gian-Carlo Menotti, who was a lifelong companion and collaborator. In addition to writing operas of his own, Menotti provided the libretto for Barber's opera Vanessa, first performed in 1958. The work won Barber his first Pulitzer prize, an achievement he repeated in 1962 with his Piano Concerto.
Barber was seen by some as a traditional composer in a time of great change. He relied on a Romantic sense of tonality and drama, but was not afraid to experiment with new techniques. The 1940 Violin Concerto referenced Igor Stravinsky in its angular diatonicism, and the Piano Sonata made use of Arnold Schoenberg's serial techniques and the renewed interest in fugue prevalent at the time.