Samuel Barber's romantic sensibility permeates his only Violin Concerto. The work's provenance, however, is more appropriate to an 18th-century workaday artisan than to a 20th-century Prix de Rome winner. It was originally commissioned in 1939 by soap magnate Samuel Fels for his adopted son, Iso Briselli. The dedicatee, however, complained that the work was overbalanced: too much lyricism and not enough virtuosity. When Barber added a breakneck third movement, the complaint became that the entire work lacked unity. Eventually Barber revised it further and it was premiered by Albert Spalding and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy in 1941. The convoluted compositional process coincided with the composer's evolution toward a more modern style, leaving a listener to acknowledge Briselli's point that the Concerto demonstrates something of a split personality - but not that it is unworthy.
The opening is surely one of the most ravishing moments in concerto literature, as the violin and orchestra join hands to step into a musical landscape full of long-breathed melodies whose vocal quality may be attributed to the influence of Barber's aunt Louise Homer, a Metropolitan Opera contralto. Especially impressive is the way this vocal quality co-exists with idiomatic violin writing. Subtle accompaniment from brass sets off the brilliant timbre of the solo violin. Another effective timbral detail is the use of piano, which typically adds weight to the ensemble but here suggests the intimacy of the parlor. The Andante is similarly lush: oboe takes center stage for the first theme, relinquishing the spotlight to the soloist with great reluctance. The tone changes abruptly for the finale, however; in the words of critic Nathan Broder: "Here an almost willfully cultivated Mendelssohnian simplicity is suddenly interrupted by a presto perpetuum mobile full of irregular rhythms and quite un-Mendelssohnian dissonances. It is as if the composer had suddenly lost patience with certain self-imposed stylistic restrictions." We may well spare a bit of sympathy for Briselli when listening to this movement - the soloist's nonstop chattering leads the ensemble through distant harmonic territory before ending on an emphatic A-minor chord. The work's overall expressive arc is left unbalanced - capturing not only a turning point for Barber, but, perhaps, a sense of urgency about the future that must have resonated with both artist and audience.
- Susan Key is a musicologist and frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs, specializing in American music.