Violin Concerto, op. 14

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          If any composer may truly be considered our national composer, Samuel Barber should surely be in the running. Notwithstanding the adulation of Aaron Copland’s populist music from the 1930s and 40s, most of the latter composer’s compositions in other musical styles are not well received by the American public--too dissonant and modern!  On the other hand, no major American composer of the twentieth century was a more ardent and eloquent champion of a lyrical, accessible, yet modern idiom than Samuel Barber.  His musical style is founded in the romantic traditions of the nineteenth century, whose harmonic language and formal structures were his point of departure.  Unlike so many of his peers, he was not powerfully swayed by the modernism emanating from Europe after World War I, but pursued his own path.  

            Consistently lyrical throughout his career, it is telling that his songs constitute about two-thirds of his compositions in number.   His vocal works include two major operas, Vanessa (1956), and Antony and Cleopatra (1966), the latter composed for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center.  He composed at least one work for almost every musical genre, and unlike most composers, he was a recognized and published composer from his student days.  At the age of twenty-one his overture to The School for Scandal was an instant success, was forthwith published, and remains in the standard repertoire.  Though his choral music and solo vocal music are concert mainstays, it is an instrumental work that is his best-known composition--the Adagio for Strings, championed by Toscanini when Barber was only twenty-eight years old.   The vocally-inspired lyricism of that work is emblematic of all that Barber wrote, even in the most vigorous of his works.  His violin concerto is innately typically of that fundamental aspect of his style, and accounts for much of its popularity.

            The concerto has lived a somewhat checkered existence on its way to a solid position in the standard repertoire for solo violin.  Its genesis began in 1939 when a young concerto violinist, Iso Briselli, financially supported by the great Philadelphia philanthropist, Samuel Fels, commissioned a violin concerto from Barber.  Briselli was a friend of Barber and had been his classmate in the first graduating class of the famed conservatory, the Curtis Institute of Music.  Barber went right to work, and by October of that year had finished the first two movements.  Things started to unravel at that point.  Briselli was consulting closely with a violin coach in New York, and under the latter’s Svengali-like influence, Briselli conveyed to Barber that his efforts were not sufficient for his needs.  The criticisms were direct:  not  “gratifying for a violinist to perform,” not sufficiently virtuoso enough, “childish in details,” and that Briselli would be “undertaking a great risk to perform it.”  Briselli’s coach “graciously” offered to perform a “surgical operation” to improve it.  Needless to say, Barber demurred.

            Things got worse when Barber finally delivered the last movement—late—in November.  Briselli and the coach didn’t like it at all--too lightweight for a major work, too short, and inappropriate in form.   “Fix it and I’ll still play the première with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra” seemed to be Briselli’s attitude.  It never happened.  Barber stuck to his guns and by what he had composed, Briselli relinquished all rights to it, and Barber never received the second half of his commission payment.  Controversy did not end at that point, however. Widespread acceptance of the concerto was slow over the years before it garnered the respect and admiration that it now receives, and during that time an unfortunate slander was associated with it.  It had become received knowledge that Briselli had deemed the last movement as “unplayable,” and that is why he rejected it.  That bit of calumny seemed to live on for decades everywhere—from program notes to history books.  However, recent archival scholarship has completely disproved it—Briselli was far too much of a virtuoso violinist for that canard to have been true, and simply didn’t like the movement. But, it is a mark of the character of both Briselli and Barber that they remained lifelong friends, through it all.

            And what of the concerto, itself?  Even its early detractors admitted that it was a beautiful, romantic piece; Barber’s lyrical style ensured that. The first movement is in a moderate tempo, with the solo violin heard from the very beginning.  Elegant, meditative melodies flow in abundance, meshed into lush orchestral textures, interrupted from time to time by more rhythmic, intense moments.  Carrying it all is Barber’s mastery of integrating the orchestra and various soloists within as almost equal partners with the violin soloist.  The clarity of the orchestration literally “sails” his ideas aloft during the peaks of intensity.   There’s an almost embarrassing succession of ideas as the movement evolves.   Pensive woodwind solos mark the movement’s quiet conclusion.

            The solo oboe spins out a pensive opening to the slow movement, followed by other solo woodwinds over the rich string texture.  Finally, the solo violinist seems to just float out of the horn sonority, followed shortly by a little rhythmic interjection by the trumpets that is heard from time to time in varying contexts as a bit of punctuation throughout.  And as in the first movement, Barber weaves an elegant contrapuntal texture between soloist and orchestra.  Those familiar with his Adagio for Strings will enjoy again the composer’s magical ability to weave scintillating brilliance as the weft of themes climbs higher and higher in the climax of the movement.  It all ends tranquilly in Barber’s characteristic quietude, the solo violin sinking low into the pianissimo sea of strings.

            The last movement is designated as in “perpetual motion”—and that it surely is, a frenetic flurry of absolutely nonstop rhythmic motion by both the soloist and the orchestra. No one is spared from the challenges of relentlessly driving ahead.  It doesn’t last long at all—and how could it?—for the intensity would be impossible to sustain for much longer that it lasts.  The orchestration absolutely sparkles, and the onward hurdle, as all careen to the end, firmly ensconces this movement in company with some of the most impressive scherzos in all the orchestral literature.

            It is difficult now to understand what all the fuss was about in the early life of this work.  It has taken its place in the standard repertoire of violin concertos.  What is different, perhaps, is that now we understand more fully that great art, while most often conceived in the context of tradition, nevertheless poses its own questions, and crafts its own answers.  Great composers, and that company surely includes Samuel Barber, seek their own paths, and make their own ways.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan