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In 1939, Philadelphia industrialist Samuel Simeon Fels commissioned Barber to write a violin concerto for Fels' ward, Iso Briselli, a graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music the same year as Barber, 1934. The Barber biographies written by Nathan Broder (1954) and Barbara B. Heyman (1992) discuss the genesis of the concerto during the period of its commission and the subsequent year leading up to the first performance. Heyman interviewed Briselli and others familiar with the history in her publication. In late 2010, previously unpublished letters written by Fels, Barber, and Albert Meiff (Briselli's violin coach in that period) from the Samuel Simeon Fels Papers archived at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania became available to the public.
Barber accepted Fels's advance and went to Switzerland to work on the concerto. 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. His plans were interrupted, however, due to the impending war—all Americans were warned to leave Europe. In late August, he went to Paris and then took a ship to the USA, 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.
When he delivered the first two movements to Briselli in mid-October, Briselli received them with great enthusiasm. He believed they were beautiful and eagerly awaited the finale. He suggested to Barber that when writing the last movement, he might include more of the virtuosic side of the violin's capabilities.
However, in mid-November, things began to go awry. Briselli showed the two completed movements he was learning to his violin coach in New York City, Albert Meiff, who was immediately critical of the work from a violinistic standpoint. Briselli did not concur. Nevertheless, Meiff, who enjoyed the confidence of Fels, and believing he was protecting Briselli's interests, took it upon himself to write Fels a letter (November 13) stating why the violin part had to undergo a "surgical operation" by a "specialist" such as himself. He said "The technical embellishments are very far from the requirements of a modern violinist..." and if Briselli performed the work as written, it would severely hurt his reputation. Meiff said he was rewriting the violin part to make it more acceptable and that it was necessary that he, Briselli and Barber get together for a "special meeting" to discuss his changes. Briselli was disappointed when he received the third movement from Barber in late November. He had expected a finale comparable in substance and quality to the first two movements, and felt it was too lightweight by comparison. He told Barber that it did not have a sense of belonging; it seemed musically unrelated to the first two movements, and he thought it was insufficient in compositional form or development to stand as the finale of a major work. It was important to Briselli that the commission be as substantial as the other major concertos in his repertoire that he was offering for prospective orchestra engagements.
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." Barber expressed concern about the disposition of the $500 advance that he had already spent and wanted to be sure that Fels understood his side of the story. Barber explained why he was late in delivering the commission: he was held up in Europe with the war outbreak and subsequently the illness of his father. He landed back in the US on September 1st and immediately "went to the mountains to work." Barber said he was surprised to see on landing that "the first performance was already announced for January" without his being notified by Briselli or Eugene Ormandy. Also, Barber knew Briselli and Fels wanted the music by October 1 to give Briselli time to learn it—presumably for the upcoming January performances.
At this juncture, the Barber and Briselli accounts differ somewhat; both are set forth here: Barber continues that he gave Briselli "the completed first two movements (about 15 minutes of music)" in "the middle of October" and "he seemed disappointed that they were not of virtuoso character--a bit too easy." Briselli's account was that he liked them very much but suggested to Barber when writing the third movement, he might explore more of the virtuosic side of the violin's capabilities. Barber then says he asked Briselli "what type of brilliant technique best suited him; he told me he had no preference." Barber continues: "At that time, he did not apparently dislike the idea of a 'perpetual motion' for the last movement." Barber says that he "worked very hard" on the last movement, finishing it "in far from ideal circumstances" (his father's illness), and sent the violin part to Briselli about two months before the intended premiere. Barber says that "It is difficult, but only lasts four minutes." Barber never mentions Meiff's proposal that the three of them meet in regards to alterations of the violin part of the first two movements, or Meiff's desire to "advise" Barber on the third movement while it was being written.
Barber then discloses to Fels that when he sent the finale to Briselli, "At the same time, I had a violinist from Curtis play it for me to see that it was practical and playable." Barber then wrote "My friends heard and liked it, so did I. But Iso did not." The three reasons he gave for Briselli's rejection were (1) "he could not safely learn it for January;" (2) "it was not violinistic;" and (3) "it did not suit musically the other two movements, it seemed to him rather inconsequential. He wished another movement written." Barber continues "But I could not destroy a movement in which I have complete confidence, out of artistic sincerity to myself. So we decided to abandon the project, with no hard feelings on either side." He said he was "sorry not to have given Iso what he had hoped for." [Contemporaries confirmed that the two men did remain friends until Barber's death despite their disagreement on the concerto.] Barber goes on to say that "While it was Iso's complete right not to accept a work he finds unsuitable," he feels he does deserve to be paid something considering that he had worked four months entirely on the concerto and "has done his best in submitting a work for which he makes absolutely no apology." He appeals to Fels' "understanding and generosity" that he be allowed to keep the $500 advance, which he believes is standard practice "when a commissioned work is not accepted by the commissioner." Fels does say in his December 15 letter to Barber that the matter would most likely be settled "satisfactorily" for both parties.
Meiff replies on December 26 to a hand written note from Fels with a lengthy two-page letter outlining to Fels, "point by point," the many reasons why the piece is deficient—thus arming Fels with the information he needed to be able to speak intelligently to Barber. Meiff explains: it "hasn't got enough backbone—not strong, not majestic—does not contain enough dramatic moments, all of which make for a successful performance." He says it is not a piece for a great hall with a huge orchestra "...like placing a small basket of dainty flowers among tall cactus in a vast prairie;" he says it lacks an effective beginning and a typical violin technique. And specifically addressing the finale: "It was a dangerous thought from the very beginning, to make a perpetual motion movement ...without a breath of rest and without melodic parts...a risky tiresome ending...it was a wrong idea, and Mr. Barber should admit this." Meiff therefore felt it his duty "to advise Iso not to do it." On the positive side, he acknowledges that "...it has many beautiful parts" and that he has "personal admiration for the composer for himself personally and musically."
But there is never any evidence or assertion by Briselli or contention by Barber that Briselli found the third movement too difficult to play. As to the upcoming premiere performance, in place of the Barber, Briselli substituted Dvořák's Violin Concerto. Barber's letter of December 14 to Fels identifies his intention with regard to the third movement: Barber (now teaching at the Curtis Institute) set up a test of playability to assure himself what he was giving to Briselli was "practical and playable." A Curtis student, Herbert Baumel, was known to be an excellent sight reader, and he was asked to study the finale for a couple of hours, then to join Barber in pianist Josef Hofmann's studio. After reviewing the music, Baumel went to the studio to discover an audience of Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, Mary Louise Curtis Bok (founder of the Curtis Institute), and Edith Braun, a friend of Mrs. Bok. In the correspondence Barber writes, "My friends ... liked it, so did I." In early 1940 there was a private performance by Baumel with the Curtis Institute Orchestra under Fritz Reiner. That performance brought the piece to the further attention of Eugene Ormandy, who soon scheduled its official premiere in a pair of performances by Albert Spalding with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Academy of Music in February 1941. [The actual premiere was on February 7.] Those performances were followed on February 11, 1941, by a repeat performance in Carnegie Hall, and from that point, the piece rapidly entered the standard violin and orchestral repertoire, and has become one of the most frequently performed of all 20th-century concertos.
The concerto has been recorded by a number of violinists, including Louis Kaufman, Ruggiero Ricci, Leonid Kogan, Anne Akiko Meyers, Joshua Bell, Giora Schmidt, James Ehnes, Hilary Hahn, Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham and Isaac Stern. The version made in 1964 by Stern with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein remains a celebrated romantic interpretation, while the 1988 recording by Meyers with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has been highly praised. A transcription of the concerto for flute and orchestra was recorded and issued on the now defunct Collins Classics label and later re-released on the Regis label with Jennifer Stinton as the soloist.
Form of the work
- Presto in moto perpetuo
Barber provided these program notes for the premiere performance:
- The first movement—allegro molto moderato—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 sostenuto—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 perpetuum mobile, exploits the more brilliant and virtuosic character of the violin.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-06-15. Retrieved 2012-07-10.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- Historical Society of Pennsylvania letters and an in-depth portrayal of the violinist, Iso Briselli linked to this violin concerto, written and edited by conductor, Marc Mostovoy http://www.isobriselli.com.
- May 4, 1939 Letter from Fels to Barber—source-link 3 below
- November 13, 1939 Letter from Meiff to Fels—source-link 4 below
- Dec 4, 1939 Letter from Barber to Fels. . . P.1> http://www.isobriselli.com/letters/BROWN_1.jpeg . . .P.2> http://www.isobriselli.com/letters/BROWN_2.jpeg—source-links 5,6 below
- May 4, 1939 Letter from Barber and reply by Fels—source-links 1,2,3 below
- December 14, 1939 Letter from Barber to Fels—source-links 5,6 below
- December 14, 1939 Letter from Barber to Fels—source-links 5,6 below.
- December 26, 1939 Letter from Meiff to Fels—source-links 7,8 below
- Edith Evans Braun http://archives.nypl.org/mus/20102
- Graham Parlett, CD review on the Arnold Bax Website (archive from 25 October 2014)
- Various correspondences of Fels, Barber, and Meiff quoted in the content and in-line cited: ,
- The Strad magazine—November 1995 (Barber's Violin Concerto: The True Story)
- Historical Society of Pennsylvania letters and an in-depth portrayal of the violinist, Iso Briselli linked to this violin concerto. Historical Society of Pennsylvania Letters from HSP helped solve this musical mystery. Read about it in this article from the Milkwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel (see next link)
- MSO, Almond to perform concerto with a controversial past
- A detailed discography of Barber's works, including various versions of the Violin Concerto