You are on page 1of 3

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op.

Born March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania Died January 23, 1981, in New York City Work composed summer 1939July 1940; January November 27, 1945; revised 1948 World premiere February 7, 1941, in Philadelphia, with Eugene Ormandy conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra and violinist Albert Spalding; the revised version was introduced January 7, 1949, with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony; Ruth Posselt, soloist New York Philharmonic premiere October 13, 1960, Leonard Bernstein, conductor, Aaron Rosand, soloist Most recent New York Philharmonic performance July 24, 2004, David Robertson, conductor, Leonidas Kavakos, soloist, at Colorados Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival Estimated duration ca. 24 minutes

hen The Curtis Institute of Music opened its doors to receive its first students, on October 1, 1924, Samuel Barber was second in line. His musical gifts had been apparent from an early age, and he was fortunate to be born into a family that was attuned to recognize them. Although his parents were not professional musicians,

his aunt, the contralto Louise Homer, was a mainstay at The Metropolitan Opera, and her husband, Sidney Homer, was well known as a composer of light lieder of the parlor-song sort. At Curtis, Barber studied principally piano (with Isabelle Vengerova), composition (with Rosario Scalero), and voice (with the baritone Emilio de Gorgorza, who was a colleague of Barbers aunt at the Met). While a student there he produced several works that have entered the enduring repertoire, including his Dover Beach for baritone and string quartet (which he sang in its first commercial recording) and his orchestral Overture to The School for Scandal and Music for a Scene from Shelley. Thanks to a Rome Prize, he spent 1935 to 1937 at the American Academy in that city completing, among other pieces, his Symphony in One Movement, which quickly received high-profile performances in Rome, Cleveland, and New York, as well as in the opening concert of the 1937 Salzburg Festival. The following year his reputation was cemented when Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony broadcast his Essay No. 1 and his Adagio for Strings; the latter would become one of the best known compositions of the century. Barber was famous, and he was not yet 30 years old. In 1939 Barber returned to Curtis, this time as composition professor, and maintained that position until 1942 (when he would trade his affiliation with Curtis for one with the U.S. Army Air Force). It was during this period at Curtis that he composed his Violin Concerto. Samuel Fels, of Fels-Naptha soap fame, served on the conservatorys board of directors, and he had taken it upon himself to support a needy child-prodigy violinist named Iso Briselli, who had come from his native Odessa to enroll at Curtis when he was 12.

Continuing Controversy

The hullabaloo surrounding the commission and composition of Samuel Barbers Violin Concerto was certainly unfortunate, but just where the truth lies in the whole matter remains unclear. Barbers side was put forth in Nathan Broders 1956 biography of the composer: When the [third] movement was submitted, the violinist declared it too difficult. The sponsor demanded his money back, and Barber, who had already spent it in Europe, called in another violinist who performed the work for the merchant and his protg, to prove that the finale was not unplayable. By 1956 Broder was working for Barbers publisher, G. Schirmer, and one assumed that he drew his information from company files, or at least company lore though he was incorrect about Samuel Fels and Iso Briselli being present at the read-through demonstration. Briselli apparently did not object to this report until 1982, when he contacted Barbara Heyman then at work on her extensive Barber biography and presented his differing viewpoint. He said that the finale was too lightweight in the context of the preceding movements and that he had proposed that Barber address this by expanding the finales middle section, which Barber refused to consider doing. By then the unplayable story had become widely circulated and was constantly repeated in program notes. So it was that in 1996 orchestras across the land received a firmly worded letter from Brisellis attorney in Philadelphia. It reportedly declared: Mr. Briselli has brought to our attention false and defamatory statements concerning, among other inaccuracies, his ability to perform the third movement of Samuel Barbers Violin Concerto, Op. 14. We must advise you that your publication of the defamatory version of events may lead to the commencement of a defamation action against you on behalf of our client. A few commentators were thus inspired to think through the question more deeply, and admitted that it was hard to reconcile implications of Brisellis technical shortcomings with the knowledge that he did include a number of highly virtuosic concertos in his repertoire and that he received good reviews when he played them. My distinguished predecessor as New York Philharmonic Program Annotator, Michael Steinberg, proposed that the issue was not so much one of technical ability as of stylistic incompatibility: that Briselli was inherently drawn to conservative repertoire and simply didnt relate to certain aspects of Barbers finale on a musical, rather than a technical, basis. I would add that Briselli was right about the finale seeming slight in the context of the whole concerto; after two gorgeous, slowish, and generously scaled movements, the finale bustles away and is gone before you know it. In fact, this was not the only time Barber was flummoxed by a finale. While he was writing the Violin Concerto, for example, he was also searching for the right way to end his String Quartet, Op. 10, the finale of which he would reinvent several times over the course Barber ca. 1970 of seven years.

(Eventually Fels legally adopted Briselli, making him the heir to his substantial estate.) In early 1939 Fels offered Barber a $1,000 commission to write a violin concerto for Briselli, half to be paid in advance, the other half upon completion. Barber accepted, and that summer he got to work on the piece while staying in Sils-Maria, Switzerland. When Briselli received the first two movements, he worried that they were too simple and not brilliant enough for a concerto. Barber moved on to Paris, planning to complete there a finale that would allay Brisellis concerns, but as war clouds gathered in the east, he returned to America to continue the work. For whatever reason (see the sidebar on page 28), Briselli rejected the concerto. Barber told his publisher that the violinist found the finale too difficult, but Briselli later argued that he had felt it to be too lightweight and that the composer refused to amend the piece. In any case, Fels asked that the initial installment of his commission payment be refunded. Playability became the point on which the matter would be resolved, so a Curtis student was recruited to test the piece, was allowed to study a portion of the finale for only two hours, and then played what all listeners agreed was a dazzling performance. In the wake of this experiment, Fels paid the rest of the commission fee and Briselli relinquished the right of first performance. After further work on the finale, provisional read-throughs, and technical input from the violinist Oscar Shumsky, Barber showed his concerto to the noted violinist Albert Spalding (another beneficiary of a corporate fortune, in his case from sportinggoods equipment). Spalding signed on instantly, and it was he who introduced

In the Composers Words

Barber contributed this comment to The Philadelphia Orchestras programs for the premiere of his Violin Concerto. Written in the third person, it refers to tempo markings that Barber would later simplify: The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra was completed in July, 1940, at Pocono Lake, Pennsylvania, and is Mr. Barbers most recent work for orchestra. It is lyric and rather intimate in character and a moderatesized orchestra is used The first movement allegro molto moderato begins with a lyrical first subject announced at once by the solo violin, without any orchestral introduction. This movement as a whole has perhaps more the character of a sonata than concerto form. The second movement andante sostenuto is introduced by an extended oboe solo. The violin enters with a contrasting and rhapsodic theme, after which it repeats the oboe melody of the beginning. The last movement, a perpetual motion, exploits the more brilliant and virtuoso characteristics of the violin.

the work, with Eugene Ormandy conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra, following its extended and troubled gestation. Instrumentation: two flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, snare drum, piano, and strings, in addition to the solo violin.