Barber: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 14

Samuel Barber was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania on March 9, 1910 and died in New York City on January 23, 1981. He began his Violin Concerto at Sils Maria, Switzerland, in the summer of 1939, continued work on it in Paris, and completed it at Pocono Lake Preserve, Pennsylvania, and in Philadelphia in July 1940. In 1948, Barber undertook some revisions. This revised version is what has been heard since; Albert Spalding was the first to play it at SFS subscription concerts, in January 1943, with Pierre Monteux conducting; the most recent SFS performances were given in September 2002 by Joshua Bell, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. The score calls for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, snare drum, piano, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-five minutes.

During the winter of 1938-39, it occurred to Samuel Fels, who had made a fortune from Fels Naptha soap, to commission a violin concerto for Iso Briselli, his adopted son. Briselli was born in Odessa, that amazing breeding-ground of violinists, and had come to America at the age of twelve when his teacher, the eminent Carl Flesch, went to head the violin department at the newly founded Curtis Institute in 1924. Gama Gilbert, a former Flesch student who had become an interesting music critic at the New York Times, suggested to Fels that Barber, a good friend of his, would be the right composer for his project. And with that, the complicated and interesting story of the Barber Violin Concerto begins.

Fels offered Barber a $1,000 commission for a concerto, $500 down, $500 on delivery. It was Barber's first major commission and a generous one for a composer early in his career: $1,000 was exactly what the Koussevitzky Foundation paid Bartók for his Concerto for Orchestra a few years later. Trouble began as soon as the "concertino," as Barber called it in his journal, was written (though not yet orchestrated). Briselli was not happy with the finale and the project was abandoned. In his 1954 biography of Barber, the first book-length study of the composer, Nathan Broder wrote: "When the movement was submitted, the violinist declared it too difficult . . . and Barber, who had already spent [his advance] in Europe, called in another violinist . . . who performed the work for the merchant and his protégé, to prove that the finale was not unplayable." Broder, by the way, does not identify Fels or Briselli by name. Barbara Heyman, author of what is now the Barber biography (1992), reasonably suggests that "Broder's account is probably the version Barber presented to his publisher."

This story was repeated by countless program-note writers for twenty-eight years. Then, in 1982, Briselli, who had long since given up the violin to devote himself to running the Fels business, offered Barbara Heyman, already at work on her book, a revisionist account. I quote from Heyman: "[Briselli] professes that although he believed the first two movements of the concerto were beautiful and eagerly awaited the finale, he was disappointed with the third movement as 'too lightweight' compared to the rest of the concerto. He suggested that the middle section be expanded to develop the movement into a sonata-rondo form, but Barber would not consider it."

Some of what happened in 1939 is clear. Barber wanted someone to perform the controversial finale to demonstrate that it was “practical and playable,” and one afternoon Herbert Baumel, a Curtis student, was buttonholed by the pianist Ralph Berkowitz, given the pencil manuscript of the first half of the movement, told he had two hours in which to learn it and that it should be played "very fast," and instructed to appear at the proper time, "dressed up," in the studio of the great Josef Hofmann, then director of the Institute. Berkowitz would accompany him. The shotgun audition went brilliantly. The assembled company (which included Hofmann; Mary Louise Curtis Bok, the founder of the Curtis Institute; the composer and pianist Edith Evans Braun; Gian Carlo Menotti; and Barber himself) recommended, as Heyman writes (citing Baumel’s own version of the events), "that Barber was to be paid the full commission and Briselli had to relinquish his right to the first performance." Contrary to Broder's account, Briselli was not present and probably not invited. Presumably the enforcement of the jury's verdict was managed discreetly behind the scenes. In the end, Barber was permitted to keep his $500 advance (though he apparently never received the balance) and the two men agreed to dissolve their collaboration.

The question remains: Was Briselli's displeasure with the finale a technical issue, as the Broder (or Barber-Broder) story has it, or was it a musical issue, as Briselli put it to Heyman forty-three years after the event? Heyman writes that it is unlikely Briselli would have found Barber's finale "too difficult." He was an excellent violinist, consistently praised in reviews for "immaculate, facile technique, poetic expressiveness, and rich tone," and his repertory included, along with such classics as the Beethoven Concerto, taxing bravura pieces by Paganini, Sarasate, Wieniawski, Ysaÿe, et al. But if playability was not the issue, as Briselli maintained in his 1982 interview with Heyman, why was this demonstration necessary?

And what about the musical issue? Almost everyone who listens to the Barber Concerto is struck by a split that separates the first two movements from the third. The Allegro and Andante are lyric and almost entirely lacking in brilliant passagework. The Presto is a crackling virtuoso number whose harmonic language is noticeably more biting. Briselli thought this split a blemish. He is not alone in this, but by no means will every listener agree with him on that point either.                 

I want to propose a third possibility. As I sought to understand this mysterious and fascinating story, it occurred to me that perhaps Briselli was musically unhappy with the finale not just in its relation to the first two movements, but per se. Even in 1939 this was relatively conservative and accessible music, but such concepts as "reactionary," "conservative," "advanced," and "radical" are in the ear of the beholder. I can easily imagine how Barber's metrical oddities and the rapidly shifting chromatics would be daunting to a performer who had not been trained even in mild twentieth-century music. In the course of their conversation, Briselli told Heyman that around the same time, someone had suggested he learn Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2, another piece most of us would regard as standing at the conservative end of the spectrum of music in the 1930s, but that he had not done so because he found the idiom strange.

All musical experience begins with the ear. What we cannot hear we cannot play. Barber's finale requires what Roger Sessions called "virtuosity of the ear" as well as virtuosity on the fingerboard and with the bow-arm, and the latter will not kick in unless the former is present. As a purely mechanical challenge, Briselli could of course have managed Barber's flying triplets, rocketing ninths, and chromatic zigzags, but it was not a purely mechanical challenge--it was the application of technique to a musical purpose, and in this instance a musical purpose with which the player may not have been at home.

The collapse of the Briselli scheme left Barber free to find another soloist. Having heard that Albert Spalding was looking for an attractive American concerto, Barber went to see him in August 1940 and, as he told the conductor William Strickland, "he took [it] on the spot." Spalding was a solid, respected player, and his performance of the Barber won praise and brought the composer great acclaim.

The opening is magical. Does any other violin concerto begin with such immediacy and with so sweet and elegant a melody? A rolled G major chord on the piano ushers it in. The melody belongs to the solo violin, and it stretches its deliciously unpredictable way through twenty-four measures. If you go along with the idea that some composers are essentially vocal composers (Mozart) and some essentially instrumental (Beethoven), and allowing room for the possibility that some are both (Bach), then Barber was surely a vocal composer by nature--and here, like Mozart, he is composing vocal music for an instrument. Two more themes appear, both introduced by the violin: one is lightly touched by melancholia, the other is grazioso e scherzando. The development begins with a surprising darkening of the scene. Toward the end, Barber gives us at least a hint of a cadenza, which is more effectively introduced in the revised version than in the original.

The Andante begins with another inspired melody, this one given to the oboe. With touching tact, Barber lets the oboist bask in that glory, for the violin enters and occupies itself with quite different, more rhapsodic material; only at the recapitulation does the violin take the oboe theme, singing it molto espressivo low on the G-string. The coda, one of Barber's most beautiful pages, is one of the products of the revision.

The finale starts with a hushed tattoo on muted timpani; the violin enters almost immediately and plays nonstop for 102 measures. The soloist gets nine measures of respite here and another sixteen a little later; otherwise it is unremitting up-tempo motion. In the coda, Barber increases our sense of speed both by shortening the measures and shifting from triplet eighth-notes to sixteenths. Three measures before the end, an arpeggio in two keys at once (the ghost of Petrushka?) slews the music over to E-flat minor, about as far from the home key of A minor as you can get. For a moment the solo violin seems to embrace this wild idea, but it is cut off by a fortissimo A minor chord that says unmistakably, That's it!

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store.

More About the Music
Recordings—James Ehnes with Bramwell Tovey conducting the Vancouver Symphony (CBC Records)  |  Gil Shaham with André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon) 

Reading—Barbara Heyman’s Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music (Oxford)