Samuel Barber portrait.jpeg

SAMUEL BARBER (1910-1981)

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14 (1940)

I. Allegro

II. Andante

III. Presto in moto perpetuo

There is an undeniable quality in the music of American composer Samuel Barber that both defines the lyricism of American beauty and the modernism of vicious and capricious virtuosity. His most endearing work, "Adagio for Strings," is the soundtrack of national heartache. Author and music critic Thomas Larson calls it the saddest music ever written. "Whenever the American dream suffers a catastrophic setback, Barber's Adagio plays on the radio," writes Alex Ross. From its radio broadcast after the death of John F. Kennedy, as the score to Oliver Stone's 1986 Vietnam film "Platoon," to its programming after the September 11 attacks, Barber's music is cultural, offering the listener a pathway to introspection and truth. 

 

Much of Barber's early career is tied to the Curtis Institute of Music. As one of the institution's first students, he composed "Dover Beach" and "The School for Scandal Overture" while in residence, works that have since entered the repertoire. Winning the Rome Prize, Barber's career grew exponentially. In 1938, he would become one of the most recognized composers under 30, primarily due to the broadcast performances of his "First Essay for Orchestra" and the "Adagio for Strings" with Arturo Toscanini and his newly formed NBC Symphony. 

 

The story of how the concerto came to be is turbulent, a High Noon creative showdown, a perspective of the All-American battlecry, hold your ground. Barber returned to his alma mater in 1939, taking up professorial duties. Samuel Fels, who served on the board of directors, offered Barber a $1000 commission (the equivalent of just under $20,000 in 2022) for a new violin concerto intended for Iso Briselli, a Curtis graduate. Barber was advanced half of the commission to start. When Briselli received the first two movements, he was thrilled, but his coach, Albert Meiff was less receptive, opining it lacked substance and virtuosity and would be a career-ender for his pupil. Meiff suggested he would rewrite the violin part to a more suitable quality. Briselli requested Barber for something more virtuosic in the third movement to balance the work. When Barber sent the third movement, Briselli was now in disagreement, feeling the direction was much too different from the first two and requested a do-over, a total rewrite. 

 

Briselli was right in his assessment. The third movement was a stunning departure from the overtly melodic and lyrical romantic writing of the first two movements. The third begins war-like in a barrage of triplets, machine-like scales, and arpeggiations that fire out of timpani-like canons. The harmonic language is noticeably more adventurous. Barber was confident in the movement, held his ground and refused to make any changes, and so the Barber-Briselli venture was dissolved, with the violinist relinquishing his claim on the concerto. 

 

The score’s rejection is often framed with the evaluation that the third movement was impossible to perform. Wanting to ensure the work was practical, Barber asked Herbert Baum, a Curtis student, to test it for playability, in-front of an audience. The test successfully led to a private performance with Baum and the Curtis Institute Orchestra under Fritz Reiner. Eventually, violinist Albert Spalding would take up the work to give the official premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy on February 7, 1941.

The concerto is in three movements and runs for 24 minutes. For the Philadelphia premiere, Barber contributed the following program note:

 

“The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra was completed in July, 1940, at Pocono Lake, Pennsylvania, and is Mr. Barber's most recent work for orchestra. It is lyric and rather intimate in character and a moderate-sized orchestra is used: eight woodwinds, two horns, two trumpets, percussion, piano, and strings. 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.”

 

Samuel Barber was on March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and died on January 23, 1981 in New York City. © MTF

(Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai)

ABOUT THIS PERFORMANCE (MASTERWORKS 3):

American masters take center stage to celebrate an American experience, fearless women, impossible virtuosity, and unforgettable journeys. Violinist Joshua Bell and Soprano Larisa Martinez join your Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra in a program of the unshakable American spirit with Barber’s sweeping Violin Concerto, Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Bernstein’s West Side Story, Gershwin’s tour de force An American in Paris, and more! © MTF