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Violin Concerto, Op 14


The Violin Concerto was composed in 1939–40 and premiered the following year with Albert Spalding (violin) and the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. It was commissioned by Samuel Fels, a trustee of the Curtis Institute, for the violinist Iso Briselli. Barber’s original letter to Fels, dated “May 4–1939”, accepting the commission and anticipating a work “of about 15 minutes duration” and further relevant typewritten correspondence can be viewed on the internet. There were concerns expressed about the effectiveness (some say the difficulty) of the last movement. When Barber refused to reconsider Briselli withdrew, and the first performance was then offered to Spalding. Much later, in 1948, Barber made some revisions.

The work is deeply lyrical. Barber dispenses with the conventional orchestral tutti, giving the opening first subject directly to the soloist. The delicacy of the orchestral scoring by no means precludes contrapuntal interest. The second subject, presented first by the clarinet, bears the distinctive stamp of American folk music with its fourths and a dotted snap. The material is developed extensively, with opportunities provided for the soloist to melt the heart, rather than merely to dazzle. A brief cadenza marks the start of the coda.

The character of the expressive slow movement is laid down by the oboe, with the melodic line taken up subsequently throughout the orchestra. The soloist is obliged to wait until the arrival of the second subject to make his presence felt. The cadenza at the conclusion of the development section is accompanied by long, held notes in the 1st horn and 1st bassoon, demanding the lung-power of a synchronised swimmer.

The Finale is a true moto perpetuo, similar in concept, if not in style, to the Finale of Ravel’s Violin Sonata. The orchestra, too, has to maintain full alertness and vigilance. The story that Barber asked a student, Herbert Baumel, to learn the solo part and play it to him within two hours appears to be true. It seems to have been only up to bar 94 (1’48” see Barbara Heyman, Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music, 193-4), but that was enough for Barber to proclaim that it was playable. The final bars introduce even faster notes and the work concludes with a dazzling arpeggio disappearing into the upper atmosphere.

from notes by Adam Chambers © 2011


Walton & Barber: Violin Concertos
SIGCD238Download only


Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Andante
Movement 3: Presto in moto perpetuo

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