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Composed: 1939

Length: 25 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, snare drum, timpani, piano, strings, and solo violin

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 7, 1981, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, with Isaac Stern, soloist.

About this Piece

Samuel Barber’s death in 1981 at the age of 70 deprived America of one of its most distinguished and consistently successful composers of serious music. Something of an oddity in our society, Barber was able to live comfortably from the fruits of his creative activities alone. In contrast to the majority of his colleagues who have to “moonlight” in various other musical capacities, he was able to devote himself to composing almost from the auspicious start of his career.

In the 1930s, with atonality and the 12-tone technique pressing for consideration, Barber’s traditionalism was welcomed with enthusiasm. In his works were all the comforting qualities valued by the large public, for Barber was in possession of a craftsmanship that extended to all the elements of music: his melodies are natural and expansive (and that there were melodies at all was enough cause for rejoicing); the rhythms varied and vital; the harmonies just pungent enough; and his orchestration, like that of Brahms (the composer in whose steps Barber seems to have followed), does not call attention to itself, but is nonetheless distinctive for being perfectly suited to the musical thought at hand. In short, skill, taste, and seriousness inform Barber’s music at every turn.

The last element—seriousness—figures as one of the composer’s most unvarying characteristics. Some people are born middle-aged. Samuel Barber, as viewed through his music, was one of these. When at age seven he wrote his first piece and titled it Sadness, the die was cast. If not sadness, then an elegiac lyricism pervades much of his music. Typical of this emotional climate are the first two movements of the Violin Concerto, which revolve in an orbit of pensive, plangent songfulness. Even when this mold is broken for a fast and virtuosic final movement, the music is hardly frivolous; it is still notably serious.  

The Violin Concerto was composed in 1939 on commission by a wealthy businessman for a protégé and was premiered by Albert Spalding in 1941. The first movement is nearly singular in its lyrical approach. The expansive main theme, presented immediately by the violin—an extended melody containing several distinctive rhythmic figures—dominates the movement. In contrast to this long-breathed lyricism, a secondary theme of a simple, folk-like character tries for perkiness and very nearly achieves it. The alternation of these two themes, at times in varied tempos and orchestration (in which the piano adds a distinctive color), but with only a minimum of dramatic conflict, fleshes out a movement which emits an aura of Brahmsian reflection and Straussian poignance.

The second movement is even more inward that the first, beginning with the moody first theme in oboe. However, there are some marked tensions along the way; and also some quasi-Orientalisms that bear surprising echoes of Rachmaninoff.

The vital last movement presents Russianisms of another persuasion—namely, the grotesquerie of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Syncopations and counter-rhythms enhance the diabolical atmosphere of the perpetual motion whirlwinds in which the violin participates brilliantly virtually throughout. In the concluding measures, the violin’s rhythm becomes ever more precipitous (triplet eighths change to sixteenths), and the movement ends in a burst of brilliance. —Orrin Howard