December 20, 2020
The Barber Violin Concerto is a relatively short concerto with a performance time of c.22minutes for the three movement work. A young Samuel Barber was commissioned by Samuel Simeon Fels to write a piece for his ward Iso Briselli, who - like Barber - was a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music. In 2010, letters between the three parties became available for public reading and revealed quite a story for the work.
Barber started working on the first two movements in Switzerland during the summer of 1939. He hoped to complete the concerto in the early fall to meet the October 1st deadline but his plans were interrupted due to the impending war when all Americans were warned to leave Europe. In late August, he travelled back to the USA through Paris arriving in early September. After spending a short time with his family in West Chester, PA, he went to the Pocono Mountains to continue working on the concerto. The first two movements were presented to Briselli in mid-October and they were met with great enthusiasm and ,after suggesting a substantial and virtuosic third movement, he took the unfinished work to his coach in NYC, Albert Meiff. Meiff, however, was less impressed and (with Briselli’s best interests in mind) sent as letter to Fels explaining that the work would need serious work, that the embellishments were not those of a modern violinist, and that if Briselli were to play the piece his reputation would be seriously hurt. He then claimed he was going to re-write the work to make the violin part more acceptable and that he, Briselli and Barber should meet to discuss changes. Barber obviously took Briselli’s criticism to heart and proceeded to write one of the most challenging pieces innthe violin reperatory.
When Barber finally completed the work, Briselli was disappointed with the final movement Briselli asked Barber if he would rewrite the finale; he could premiere it at a later date to give Barber more time if needed. He suggested possible ways in which the movement could be deepened or expanded; perhaps even changing its form altogether such as a sonata-rondo; that perhaps he might expand the third movement while possibly retaining the Moto perpetuo as the middle section and giving it more clearly defined structural parameters. Briselli felt that only then would it be a complete, first-class concerto.
Despite Briselli’s prodding, Barber was dismissive of his suggestions and declined to alter it. This was a big disappointment for Briselli, who believed that with a substantial third movement, the work could stand as a great American violin concerto. Briselli decided to hold his ground regarding the finale and chose to forego the concerto’s premiere and relinquish his claim on it. On December 14, Barber wrote Fels that, as he probably already knew, Briselli had decided the piece was “not exactly what he wanted, and has given it back to me.”
Then ensued a debate of pay between the two parties. Fels claimed that the third movement was far too difficult and impossible to play, and Barber claimed that despite this work being difficult it was only 4 minutes and he had another violinist from Curtis to play it and check the playability and practicality, finding it was playable. It is in debate as to whether the playthrough was meant to be a “demonstration play-through”, however Barber’s letter suggest it was for his own personal reassurance. What do you think?
Find the Sheet Music here