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The Piano Concerto, Op. 38, by Samuel Barber was commissioned by the music publishing company G. Schirmer Inc. in honor of the centenary of their founding. The premiere was on September 24, 1962, in the opening festivities of Philharmonic Hall, now David Geffen Hall, the first hall built at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in Manhattan, with John Browning as soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.
Barber began work on the concerto in March 1960. John Browning was the intended soloist from the outset and the concerto was written with his specific keyboard technique in mind (Heyman 1992, 410–11). The first two movements were completed before the end of 1960 but the last movement was not completed until 15 days before the world premiere performance. According to Browning (in the liner notes for his 1991 RCA Victor recording of the Concerto with the St. Louis Symphony), the initial version of the piano part of the third movement was unplayable at performance tempo; Barber resisted reworking the piano part until Vladimir Horowitz reviewed it and also deemed it unplayable at full tempo. The work was met with great critical acclaim with Barber winning his second Pulitzer Prize in 1963 and the Music Critics Circle Award in 1964.
It was recorded by Browning with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell in 1964 and also played live while being on tour with the Cleveland Orchestra in Europe in 1965. He recorded it again in 1991, with the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by Leonard Slatkin on the RCA Victor Red Seal label. Other recordings include: 1976 by the MIT Symphony Orchestra for Vox/Turnabout; a Naxos release performed by Stephen Prutsman with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Marin Alsop; and a performance by Tedd Joselson with the London Symphony Orchestra directed by Andrew Schenck.
The work is scored for piano solo and an orchestra of piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.
The work is in three movements:
- Allegro appassionato
- Canzone: Moderato
- Allegro molto
I. Allegro appassionato
The first movement opens with a piano declamation of one of the major themes, and then moves into a furious tutti section. This opening section contains the expression of the movement's chief melodies. Through inversion, retrograde, and counterpoint variations of these melodies (which will appear in later movements), Barber spins out the entire movement. It begins (after a tonally ambiguous introduction) and ends in E minor (Hayden 1982, 4, 23–24; Lu 1986, 2).
II. Canzone: Moderato
The second movement, predominantly in C-sharp minor, is based primarily on one sweet but sad melody and is far more subdued than the first movement. This movement was transcribed and expanded from an Elegy for flute and piano, composed in 1959 for the flautist Manfred Ibel. It was published in 1962, as Canzone (Elegy), Op. 38a (Heyman 1992, 413).
III. Allegro molto
The third movement, mostly in B-flat minor, is in a furiously fast 5/8 time, with a pounding ostinato that gives the piece a rather devilish sound. It makes heavy use of the brass instruments, and is driven by the recapitulation of a brief motivic theme, giving the movement a modified rondo form.
- Hayden, Paul Murray. 1982. "The Use of Tonality in Four Concertos by American Composers". DMA diss. Urbana: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne.
- Heyman, Barbara B. 1992. Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-506650-0 (cloth); ISBN 978-0-19-509058-1 (pbk).
- Lu, Emily. 1986. "The Piano Concerto of Samuel Barber". DMA diss. Madison: University of Wisconsin.