I was writing a review for a CD which features the Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber (a review which I still hope to publish in the not too distant future), when I decided to do a little extra digging into the history of the concerto – just to make sure that I was getting my facts straight. Lo and behold, I unearthed new source material that I had never seen before – a series of correspondences that dispute the conventionally held beliefs about the creation of the concerto!
What we think happened: Violinist Iso Briselli and composer Samuel Barber were among the first students to matriculate at the Curtis Institute of Music, and also among the first to graduate. Both were rising stars – Samuel Barber was beginning to find his footing on the international scene, and Briselli was racking up concert dates as an orchestral soloist – so it seemed natural that the two musicians with such bright futures should collaborate, all the better for both their reputations. A date was set for January with the Philadelphia Orchestra
Well, things just didn’t work out at all from there. When Barber sent the first two movements to Briselli, he reportedly complained that they were too easy – he was a rising star, he needed something to match the technical skills demanded by the greatest concertos of the canon – the masterworks of Brahms and Tchaikovsky! When the third movement was brought about, Briselli was shocked, because it was too difficult to play! When Barber refused to make revisions to the score, Briselli demanded his money back, which Barber was unable to provide, having spent the money on the trip he took composing the work. Thankfully for us, the Curtis Institute saved the day by providing the resources for the world premiere, and of course the rest is history.
It’s easy to see why this narrative flew – the diva violinist demands a work to his specifications, the tortured composer claims his music is perfect as is, and is eventually vindicated by history. The concerto joins the ranks of masterpieces that was initially declared to be impossible, only to succeed against all odds, and Samuel Barber gets added to the list of composers who struggled to attain recognition in their own time. How sensationalist (not to mention cliche)!
What really happened: Albert Meiff – Briselli’s coach – happened. Though Briselli and Barber were friendly acquaintances, Briselli never actually approached Barber about the commission, which was made some years after they both left Curtis. That deal was brokered by mutual acquaintance Samuel Fels, who was also on the board of the Philadelphia Orchestra. When Barber sent the first two movements to Briselli, Briselli actually responded quite enthusiastically. Although he did suggest greater technical difficulty in the finale, he appeared to enjoy the music that he had been given.
Then, about a month after receiving the music, Briselli showed it to Meiff. Although Meiff generally appears to appreciate Barber ‘s music, he thought that this particular piece wouldn’t advance his pupil’s career.When the third movement came along, Meiff used terminology along the lines of unconventional, and unviolinistic, but never impossible. Meiff would eventually write of the first two movements…
… hasn’t got enough backbone– not strong, not majestic–does not contain enough dramatic moments, all of which make for a successful performance… like placing a small basket of dainty flowers among tall cactus in a vast prairie.”
And of the Finale, Meiff writes…
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.
So in the end, nobody thought that the music was impossible, or even totally without merit. Even Meiff, the work’s strongest critic, thought highly enough of the work to offer his expertise to Barber free of charge, citing the relationship that Johannes Brahms had with the famous violinist Joseph Joachim. I wonder whether Meiff had visions of forming a similar relationship with Barber. However, it wasn’t meant to be. Meiff felt that the work was inappropriate as a showpiece for his pupil’s young career, and Briselli reluctantly agreed. The work went through a number of different hands at the Curtis Institute of Music before finally settling with Albert Spalding, who finally gave the work its premiere with the Philadelphia, only one month later than was originally planned.
As for the relationship between Barber and Briselli? Barber kept the advance he had been given, Briselli declined to pay the balance and gave up the exclusive performing rights he had been granted in the original agreement, and the two remained on good terms for the rest of their lives.