Notes by Paul J. Horsley,
Philadelphia Orchestra, January 31, 2008.




Samuel Barber was a genuine Romantic who remained true to himself, and whose music has stood up—through its solid construction and innate lyricism—to some rather severe criticism from academic circles. As tonality and Romanticism have gained new acceptance, the value of Barber's musical "stock" has risen considerably. Viewed as old- fashioned by critics during the composer's lifetime, Barber's music has always been embraced by audiences as delightfully lush and marvelously reassuring. It is music that one might expect of a Curtis-trained Philadelphian: perfectly crafted, polished to a burnished glow, brusquely assertive yet deeply conservative.

In 1932 Barber, aged 22, graduated from Curtis, where he had studied piano with Isabella Vengerova and composition with Rosario Scalero. Almost immediately his compositions began to attract attention: He won a second Columbia University Bearns Prize in 1933 (for the School for Scandal Overture), and shortly thereafter he received both a Prix de Rome from the American Academy and a Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship. His European years, spent mostly in Italy, constitute the most decisive stage of his development as a composer. There he not only sampled a different spectrum of musical styles than that available to him on Rittenhouse Square, but he also found the necessary tranquility and solitude, chiefly at the family estate of his close friend, Gian Carlo Menotti, to spend the long hours necessary to formulate a musical "voice."

The Return of Tonality?

During the 1980s there was much talk of a "neo-Romantic" movement in music, of a return to tonality and to a musical language that was more accessible to the average listener. Critics and academics announced that, with composers such as George Rochberg, John Corigliano, David del Tredici, and John Adams, concert music had turned its back on the unapproachable styles of the first part of the century and re-embraced the tonal idioms that had formed the basis of Western music for centuries. But all the talk of neo-this and neo- that overlooked one fundamental truth: that in the minds of many music-lovers—perhaps even most—tonality had never died at all. The demand for accessible music has remained fairly constant, in fact, throughout history—and not just in popular music. Now that the serialistic snobbism of the 1950s and "60s can be viewed as a sort of perverse blip on an academic/intellectual screen, we can readily embrace the notion that the music of Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Ravel, Barber, and Copland is every bit as significant for our concert life as that of Schoenberg, Webern, Carter, Babbitt, or Berio. Tonality is not "back"—it never left us. In every decade of this century, major composers wrote important, squarely tonal works that have become part of the standard repertoire.

Barber's most frequently performed pieces today are also (coincidentally or not) his most "Romantic" works—the plaintive Adagio for Strings and the Violin Concerto. The latter, composed for a Philadelphian and premiered in Philadelphia, is today the most important American violin concerto, by far. The history of its inception is, essentially, a "Philadelphia Story." In late 1938 or early 1939 Barber received—from Samuel Fels, manufacturing magnate of Fels Naphtha Soap—the first major commission that he was actually to complete, a violin concerto for Fels's protégé and adopted son, the Russian-born violinist Iso Briselli.

The composer began the piece in Sils-Maria, Switzerland, during the summer, but as 1939 drew to a close he found that Europe was becoming a very inhospitable place for Americans. Returning to the United States, he completed the Concerto in July 1940 at Pocono Lake Preserve in central Pennsylvania. Fels and Briselli—who had been quite pleased with the first two movements but were unconvinced of the effectiveness of the finale—decided to withdraw from the commission. An unofficial first performance was played at the Curtis Institute by Herbert Baumel, a violin student, and the Curtis Orchestra; the public premiere was presented on February 7, 1941, by Albert Spalding, with Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra. The piece was received with immediate enthusiasm by the public.

A Closer Look

The Concerto shows Barber at his most deliciously melodic. "Barber"s Concerto cannot fail to charm by its gracious lyrical plenitude and its complete absence of tawdry swank," wrote the sharp-tongued critic and composer Virgil Thomson, on the occasion of the Concerto's New York premiere. "The only reason Barber gets away with elementary musical methods is that his heart is pure." For his own part, Barber wrote the following comments on the piece, in a program note for the premiere: "The Concerto ... is lyric and rather intimate in character and a moderate-sized orchestra is used. ... The first movement—Allegro—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—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 (Presto in moto perpetuo), exploits the brilliant and virtuoso characteristics of the violin."

Dissatisfied with what he called "an unsatisfactory climax in the adagio and some muddy orchestration in the finale," Barber revised the Concerto in November 1948, trimming measures here and there (especially in the finale), rewriting the last 20 bars of the slow movement, and thinning the orchestration in a number of passages. The result, first played in Boston in January 1949, is the version that is universally performed today.

—Paul J. Horsley

Albert Spalding, Eugene Ormandy, and The Philadelphia Orchestra gave the world premiere of Barber's Violin Concerto in February 1941. The most recent performances were in April/May 2000, with Frank Peter Zimmermann and Wolfgang Sawallisch.

Barber scored the work for an orchestra of piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, snare drum, piano, and strings, in addition to the solo violin.

The Concerto runs approximately 25 minutes in performance.

[ home ]