skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

Violin Concerto, Op. 14

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Samuel Barber
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Lorin Maazel, conductor/ Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin, plays Barber Oct. 15 - 17, 2009
© Paul Horsley
Unlike Copland, who went through an atonal phase before "going tonal," Samuel Barber was a born Romantic who rarely flinched from writing music as tonal as it needed to be — or as dissonant as it needed to be. At the Curtis Institute he studied composition with the decidedly old-school Rosario Scalero, but he developed a style that was conservative yet uniquely modern in its own way, marked by peerless craftsmanship and a sort of brusque assertiveness.

He could not have become the composer we know had it not been for his travels, particularly those in the 1930s, when he won the Rome Prize and a Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship. At the Italian family estate of his lifelong friend, Gian Carlo Menotti, he found the long hours of solitude to formulate a musical voice that we are only beginning to fully appreciate. His most frequently performed works today are also his most "Romantic," the Adagio for Strings and the Violin Concerto — the latter the most important violin concerto by an American by far.

In late 1938 or early 1939 Barber received — from Samuel Fels, manufacturing magnate of Fels Naphtha Soap — the first major commission that he was actually to complete, a violin concerto for Fels's protégé and adopted son, the Russian-born violinist Iso Briselli. The composer began the piece in Sils-Maria, Switzerland, during the summer, but as 1939 drew to a close he found that Europe was becoming inhospitable. He came home and finished the concerto in July 1940 at Pocono Lake Preserve. An unofficial first performance was played at the Curtis Institute by Herbert Baumel and the Curtis Orchestra. Albert Spalding played the official premiere in Philadelphia on February 7, 1941, with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The critic and composer Virgil Thomson, in his review of the premiere, whimsically summarized the concerto's lushness thus: "The only reason Barber gets away with elementary musical methods is that his heart is pure." The work is indeed gorgeously melodic, with an opening theme that feels like it has always been with us. The composer provided the following cut-and-dried description of the work:

"The Concerto ... is lyric and rather intimate in character and a moderate-sized orchestra is used. The first movement 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 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 brilliant and virtuoso characteristics of the violin."

Dissatisfied with what he called "an unsatisfactory climax in the adagio and some muddy orchestration in the finale," Barber revised the Concerto in November 1948, trimming measures here and there (especially in the finale), rewriting the last 20 bars of the slow movement, and thinning the orchestration in some passages.