Barber’s Violin Concerto: A Closer Look
Posted December 21, 2013
Daniel Seriff is the Community Outreach and Graduate Admissions Coordinator for the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music. He received a bachelor’s degree in piano performance at Vanderbilt University in 1999, and earned his master’s degree in musicology from the Butler School in 2003.
As a musicologist, my first instinct with any work is to look for the stories behind the music. I firmly believe that understanding the historical, social, personal, or musical context of a piece is the best path to becoming an educated and thoughtful listener.
Looking through the required repertoire lists for the Menuhin Competition, the first work to jump out at me was Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, op. 14, composed in the summer and fall of 1939. It is one of the five works available to the senior competitors who advance to the final round, to be held on Saturday, 1 March 2014, at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.
Barber’s Violin Concerto entered the American orchestral canon almost immediately after its public premiere in 1941, and it is arguably the single most popular American work for solo instrument and orchestra. In light of this success, it seems strange that it was rejected as artistically and technically unsatisfying by the philanthropist who commissioned it and the violinist for whom it was written.
The violinist, Iso Briselli, was the protégé of Philadelphia-based industrialist Samuel Simeon Fels and one of Barber’s classmates at the Curtis Institute of Music. Briselli was delighted with the first two movements of the work, but his teacher, Albert Meiff, took an immediate dislike to it, suggesting that it was too easy and would hurt Briselli’s reputation as a virtuoso performer:
The technical embellishments are very far from the requirements of a modern violinist, and this statement is very mild, because some of the parts are childish in details, again from a violinist’s standpoint.
– letter from Meiff to Fels, November 13, 1939
The rest of Meiff’s criticisms are almost poetic in their savagery, highlighted by the insistence that performing it in a large hall with a big orchestra would be “like placing a small basket of dainty flowers among tall cactus in a vast prairie”.
Even Briselli was disappointed by the third movement that Barber sent to him in late November, though. He dismissed it as too short, lightweight, and unmelodic, and practically begged Barber to revise it into something more substantial and majestic. Barber refused to make any changes, and Briselli felt he had no choice but to turn the work down. Fels did not attempt to reclaim the $500 advance he had given to Barber (who had already spent it, anyways), but the remainder of the commission was never paid.
The concerto was first performed by Herbert Baumel and the Curtis Institute orchestra under the baton of a young Fritz Reiner. This concert caught the attention of Eugene Ormandy, who was then only five years into his 44-year tenure as director of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The stories behind our favorite works transform them from mere museum pieces into living, breathing documents of human artistic achievement. To me, the historical and personal context in which a piece was composed is just as important as the notes themselves and the quality of the performance, and exploring it always serves to enrich and deepen my listening experiences.
Welcome to the Virtuoso Blog
Posted October 22, 2013
A very special event is coming to Austin, Texas this February and March.
For the first time ever in the United States, the Yehudi Menuhin Inernational Competition for Young Violinists arrives at The University of Texas Butler School of Music. Forty-two of the world’s most talented young violinists come together in a celebration of their hard work, talent, and performance achievement.
I want to welcome young musicians, educators, and live music enthusiasts from across the great state of Texas and the world to join us for this once-in-a-lifetime event. You will have the opportunity to have intimate access to musicians from around the globe, while witnessing, up close, performers at the top of their craft. To highlight just one of the many great events, the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the top orchestras in the world, will be here, performing a special family concert for the Austin community.
This Virtuoso Project blog serves as a documentation companion to the Menuhin Competition, providing posts from jurors, previous winners, current competitors, participating musicians, educators, students, and more. Our aim is to provide you (student, educator, and live music fan) with unique, behind-the-scenes access to the Menuhin Competition experience. We hope to provide context to every day challenges that performers (or athletes, or anyone dedicated to their craft) face when striving to be their best. How do I stay motivated? How do I calm my nerves before a big performance?
I hope you take the time to check back in with this blog as we move forward towards the competition (February 21 – March 2, 2014). I hope, too, that you will be able to come join us for this great celebration of music. For those who aren’t able to make it to Austin, we will be posting video of the Competition Rounds and the Junior Finals available on this site throughout the 10-day event.
Welcome to the Menuhin Competition in Austin.
Butler School of Music
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