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Violin Concerto, Op. 14

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Samuel Barber
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Kristjan Järvi, conductor / Jennifer Koh, violin, plays Barber Oct. 31 - Nov. 2, 2013
© Robert Markow

Though Barber lived through the ages of dodecaphonic music, total serialism, musique concrète, electronic music, aleatoric music, microtonal music, spatial music, collage and the early stages of minimalism, he followed none of these fashionable movements or isms, remaining true to a romantic persuasion all his life and satisfied to work well in conservative idioms. His music breathes lyricism, heartfelt emotions, nostalgia and, in some cases, highly dramatic gestures. "There's no reason why music should be difficult for an audience to understand," Barber said.  "Even so, I don't particularly address the audience when I compose. I believe that if a piece is good enough, the audience will appreciate it. Nor do I address the performers. Or posterity. When I compose, I compose for the present, and I address myself."

The Violin Concerto had an interesting genesis. A wealthy merchant in Philadelphia commissioned Barber (also a Philadelphian) to write a concerto for a young violinist of exceptional talent. Because of the confused and potentially embarrassing situation that developed, the names of both patron and violinist were suppressed for over half a century. But musicologist Barbara Heyman, in her book Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music, (Oxford University Press, 1992), reveals their identities and sets the record straight on a number of other points as well.

Samuel Fels (of Fels Naptha soap fame) had adopted a young Russian violinist, a student of Carl Flesch, by the name of Iso Briselli. Fels commissioned the concerto for Briselli, but the violinist was dissatisfied not only with the lack of showy opportunities in the first two movements, but also with the stylistic approach in the finale. This movement just didn't fit, he claimed. Perhaps it was simply too unidiomatic and "modern" for his taste. (Briselli made a similar claim about the finale of Prokofiev's Second Concerto.) Heyman surmises that Briselli's assertion that the music was "unplayable" had more to do with musical intelligibility than with technical difficulty. There is no truth to the often-repeated claim that Briselli couldn't play it. He was a highly accomplished violinist, as contemporary press clippings confirm, and had numerous appearances as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and others to his credit. Briselli asked Barber to revise the concerto's finale to his own taste, but Barber refused. 

Barber thereupon engaged another young violinist, Herbert Baumel (then a student at Curtis, later a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra) - not Oscar Shumsky, as is often recounted - to learn a portion of the finale and to play it as fast as possible for Fels, proving that it was indeed playable and holding Fels to his contract to pay the entire stipulated fee of one thousand dollars. Shumsky too learned the concerto, and read through it with Barber playing the orchestral reduction on the piano. Baumel, as well, played through the work with the Curtis orchestra under Fritz Reiner. But the honor of the official premiere went to Albert Spalding, who performed it with the Philadelphia Orchestra on February 7, 1941, Eugene Ormandy conducting.

The concerto opens with a long-breathed, genial melody played by the soloist in Barber's most lyrical vein. This long theme (27 bars) leads directly into the second theme of this sonata-form movement, a jaunty idea introduced by the clarinet accompanied by chords in the piano (a most unusual instrument to find in a violin concerto). The romantic yearning of the first movement is intensified in the second, which also opens with a long, lyrical theme, this one sung by the oboe. The finale is cut out of different musical cloth altogether. The virtuosity demanded from the soloist is only one of its distinguishing features. In addition, this moto perpetuo is full of angular lines, spiky harmonies, irregular rhythms and perpetual agitation. Barber's early biographer Nathan Broder viewed the music "as if the composer had suddenly lost patience with certain self-imposed stylistic restrictions."