Barber’s Beautiful, Bizarre, Violin Concerto

July 24, 2018
Grammy Award-winning violinist Augustin Hadelich

Yes, I did just make reference to a 1973 Elton John song to introduce a discussion of the featured concerto on Thursday’s Colorado Music Festival orchestra concert, to be performed by violinist Augustin Hadelich and conducted by Artistic Advisor Peter Oundjian. But it is apropos, as the piece indeed is both weird and wonderful. Since the following “Fresh Friday” concert includes the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, I suppose we could call the pair of concerts “Barber and the Jets” if we wanted to…but back to the topic at hand.

Samuel Barber composed his celebrated violin concerto in 1939. The nature of its genesis, including external factors, led to the aspect that is the weirdest: the seeming incongruity between the character of the first two movements and that of the finale. The first and second movements are lyrical and melodic, the first lasting about ten minutes, the second around nine.

But to these two gorgeous movements Barber adds a finale that is played at breakneck speed, never pauses for breath, utilizes rhythmic complexities and accents that are brutal in their effect, and only runs about four minutes. It is incredibly virtuosic, with the solo violin playing in a perpetual, continual motion with only two orchestral breaks.

Explanations, including programmatic ones, have been posed as to how the three movements fit together, but none of these is particularly satisfactory. Barber does not even use a unified key center for the concerto. The first movement is in G major, the second in E major, and the finale in A minor. While the relationships are somewhat traceable in the first two movements (E minor being a prominent key in the first movement, connecting to the E major of the second), the A minor of the finale — a step up from the expected key center of G — is harder to explain. Essentially everything about the finale is incongruous. The only real explanation for it is “Barber composed it that way and liked the contrast.”

The commission and composition: a true “soap” opera

The commission for the concerto came from Samuel Fels, a prominent industrialist and president of a soap manufacturing company. His wanted to jump start the career of his ward, a young violinist named Iso Briselli (who graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music the same year as Barber, 1934). To that end, he enlisted Barber to write a concerto for Briselli.

Samuel Barber in 1932 as a student at Curtis
Samuel Barber in 1932 as a student at Curtis

Barber started to write the concerto in Switzerland, but the outbreak of World War II forced his relocation to his home in Pennsylvania, where he continued to work on it in the Pocono Mountains. To make circumstances worse, Barber’s father became seriously ill at the same time. All of this delayed the composition, but the composer delivered the first two movements to Briselli in mid-October (the original deadline was October 1).

Briselli responded enthusiastically to the two movements, finding them beautiful. He looked forward to receiving the finale, and suggested to Barber that he might write it to show off more virtuosity. Unfortunately, Briselli’s violin coach in New York City, a man named Albert Meiff, strongly objected to the violin part in the first two movements, finding it not “violinistic” enough. He said that premiering them would hurt Briselli’s reputation, and intervened with Fels, suggesting that while the movements were indeed excellent music, the violin part would need to be rewritten.

In the meantime, Barber worked feverishly on the finale in less than ideal circumstances, delivering it to Briselli in late November. While the movement was indeed virtuosic — to a very extreme degree — Briselli expressed disappointment. For a long time, the story was that the young violinist found it too difficult. But this has been debunked based on primary sources that came to light in 2010, along with interviews conducted by Barbara Heyman for her 1992 biography. The primary sources include letters by Fels, Barber, and Meiff. There is a website devoted to defending Briselli’s honor in the entire affair. The misconceptions have been largely attributed to Barber’s first biographer, Nathan Broder, whose 1954 biography was long the only one available.

Violinist Iso Briselli
Violinist Iso Briselli, for whom the concerto was originally commissioned

The truth is that Brieslli never gave any indication that it was too difficult to play. In fact, Barber tested the movement out with another violinist, a Curtis student named Herbert Baumel, to verify that it was indeed playable. Briselli’s objections corresponded to the same criticisms of the concerto that we hear today — that the finale was far too short and needed to be fleshed out to balance the other two movements.

Barber, however, stood by his composition and refused to change a movement with which he was satisfied. Briselli also stood his ground in refusing to accept it. In the end, Briselli gave up his rights to the concerto, and the affair ended amicably between the two men, who remained friendly until Barber’s death in 1981. Barber kept the $500 advance for the commission he had received from Fels, but did not receive the additional $500 promised upon completion. Briselli himself lived until 2005 and did see the initial efforts to clean up his reputation (he never played the concerto publicly, even when it became an established part of the repertoire and its popularity surged in the 1990s). Even had he accepted the finale, the interference of Meiff regarding the first two movements probably would have led to the same result.

Albert Spalding,
Albert Spalding, who premiered Barber’s Violin Concerto

The concerto was premiered by veteran violinist Albert Spalding with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy in February 1941. Briselli had said that with a different finale, the work would be established as one of the great American violin concertos. That happened anyway, as it is now one of the most frequently performed of all 20th-Century concertos. Briselli never retracted his objections.

Samuel Barber in 1944
Samuel Barber in 1944

What he and the critics have failed to recognize is that while the finale is very short, it is also incredibly powerful. Indeed, its overt and flashy technical display is part of what attracts great violinists to add it to their repertoire. The beauty of the first two movements is undoubtedly part of what attracts audiences.

The music

The first movement of the concerto is in a regular sonata form, but the soloist enters immediately with the broadly melodic opening theme. There is no orchestral introduction. Barber’s orchestra is conservative. There are no trombones, and the only “unusual” instrument is a piano. While by no means taking a solo role, the piano is rather prominent, making its presence felt in a rolled chord on the very first beat as the violin begins the theme.

After the presentation of the memorable main theme, an equally distinctive second theme is initially presented on the clarinet. It is in a minor key (inflected by the archaic-sounding Phrygian mode) and features a prominent short-long rhythm (the so-called “Lombard” or “Scotch snap”). The appropriate climaxes are reached in the development section, and the return of the main theme is an extremely satisfying moment. Barber was not fond of cadenzas (long solo displays without the orchestra), but he does give the violinist a short one.

The slower second movement in the expected three-part form does have an orchestral introduction, and the solo violin is largely absent from the first presentation of its main melody, which is given by the oboe. The soloist enters right before the more agitated second theme. Of course, the violin does get its chance at the warm yet somewhat melancholy opening melody, and Barber includes another brief cadenza.

If there is any connection to the finale, it is in the three-note rhythmic groupings in this second-movement cadenza. These groupings, called “triplets,” absolutely dominate the solo part in the finale. The movement is in a “rondo” form (characterized by a principal theme that keeps returning), but because of the “perpetual motion” character, it isn’t easy to separate the theme from its contrasting episodes. After an introduction on the timpani, the soloist enters with the triplet rhythms and continues relentlessly and incessantly at the same pulse.

The movement is virtuosic for the orchestra too, as Barber weaves complex rhythmic structures around the soloist’s continuous triplet motion. The orchestra is asked to provide pounding punctuations at precise moments. Only at the first large climax does the solo violin get a break, as the orchestral strings present the principal rondo theme. A bit later on, the soloist gets another short break as Barber briefly introduces a snare drum in the last contrasting episode. Toward the very end, the soloist speeds up the motion into four-note groups, and a powerful dissonance with the greatest possible clashing harmony marks the final flourish.

Barber said that he had given Briselli “about fifteen minutes of music” in the first two movements, but he understated this. In almost all recordings, the two movements together are around nineteen minutes. The finale is always right around four minutes or even faster. But when Hadelich plays it with the CMF orchestra under Peter Oundjian on Thursday night, the audience will find that its passionate, even violent non-stop assault is more than enough to balance the beauties of the first two movements. It is indeed weird, but it is undoubtedly wonderful.

Also on tap in Week 5

Peter Oundjian returns heavily to his American theme with his return in Week 5. The Barber concerto on Thursday is one of three pieces by American composers on an ambitious four-work program. Hadelich’s performance is followed by the symphony that post-minimalist composer John Adams extracted from his 2005 opera Doctor Atomic. The “Lyric for Strings” by African-American composer George Walker is also featured (Walker’s son Gregory was a longtime concertmaster for the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra). Finally, the orchestral showpiece “Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber,” composed by the German Paul Hindemith in the United States in 1943, precedes the concerto.

The Adams symphony is repeated — paired with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances — on the following “Fresh Friday.” A piano/vocal art song recital is something new for the CMF, and artist-in-residence Michelle DeYoung sings Brahms, Strauss and Barber songs on Saturday night with pianist Cody Garrison. After the world premiere of his orchestral song cycle “Buch des Sängers” was warmly received last week, composer Timothy Collins presents another new work for DeYoung — this time with piano accompaniment — titled “Love’s Crusade.”

Michelle DeYoung
Seisolo Artist-in-Residence Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung

DeYoung completes her residency on Sunday night with the finale from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, “Der Abschied” (“The Farewell”). Bernstein — the spiritual center of this summer’s CMF season — had a special relationship with Mahler. Oundjian conducts Joan Tower’s “Made in America”and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite (also composed on American soil) to complete that program.

Plan Your Festival Visit


Visiting Boulder

The Festival performs in beautiful Boulder, Colorado — a breathtaking location full of nature, culture, cuisine, art, and more.

Learn About Our Educational Programs


Festival Fellows

Meet the Festival Fellows: eight aspiring professional musicians who receive coaching and performance opportunities through the Festival and its guest artists.

Center for Musical Arts

This excellent community music school is also the educational arm of our organization.