DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Jan 21 2011

Samuel Barber at 100

by Ken M

If you just read that title and thought, “Who?!,” I’m happy to tell you. Samuel Barber was an American composer, born on March 9, 1910.  I happened to hear about his special 2010 milestone on the radio, tuning in on the very day itself that he would have been 100. He died in 1981, and unfortunately he didn’t live long enough to see a resurgence of interest in music written in his neo-Romantic style.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Platoon and watched the credits, you’ve heard Barber’s most famous piece. Adagio for Strings was premiered by none other than Arturo Toscanini, and it was played at many prominent funerals, including those of FDR, Albert Einstein, and Princess Grace of Monaco.

The Adagio was based on the slow movement of Barber’s only String Quartet, Op. 11. I once heard the Emerson String Quartet play the entire piece in concert at Spivey Hall, and I was very moved by the intimacy of this music in its original context. DCPL owns a Bernstein/New York Philharmonic recording of the Adagio in its most well-known form for string orchestra. It’s an interpretation which wrings every ounce of sadness and resignation out of each bar – just the kind of thing Bernstein did best. As both a Barber admirer and a Bernstein addict, I love it. (One more birthday for your library “buck”:  the Bernstein recording also includes a piece by William Schumann, who would have been 100  in 2010.)

If you like the Adagio, you absolutely must hear his Violin Concerto. This piece is probably Barber’s most popular concerto. I’d venture to guess it gets heard more often than either the cello or piano concerto, even though they’re fine pieces too. The melodies in most of the Violin Concerto are sweet, wistful, and very Romantic. The last movement is a whirlwind, with the notes flying out of the violin at top speed, and the orchestra egging it on all the way. It’s very exciting, and the first violinist to examine it, Iso Briselli, declared it unplayable.

Don’t feel too bad for Barber; other famous concertos, including Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, initially met the same reaction from those for whom they were written. Luckily, DCPL has more than one of the recording of the Barber, and if you check out the Bernstein mentioned above, the Concerto is on that CD too.

How about an Atlanta connection to Samuel Barber? Our former, beloved Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Shaw recorded a choral work by Barber, Prayers of Kierkegaard, with the Orchestra and Chorus back in 1997. It reveals its musical secrets not quite as immediately as the other two works, but it’s also well worth hearing.

Check out some of these, and enjoy some great music!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Greg Hutchinson January 22, 2011 at 12:08 PM

I’m far from a fan of classical music but Barber’s Adagio is irresistibly compelling. I found a collection of versions of this piece called BARBER’S ADAGIOS for those who want to sample many interpretations of Barber’s work. I was moved to seek out the Adagio after hearing it performed at Boston’s Fourth of July celebration in 2002, the first 4th of July after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The music could not have been better suited to the observance.

Marc Mostovoy May 29, 2011 at 12:24 AM

In “Samuel Barber at 100” by Ken M (above), he says the following in his notes about the third movement: “It’s very exciting, and the first violinist to examine it, Iso Briselli, declared it unplayable.”

The truth is that Briselli never found the third movement “unplayable.” He rejected it on musical grounds. Briselli had expected a finale comparable in substance and quality to the first two movements, and felt it was too lightweight by comparison. He told Barber that it did not have a sense of belonging; it seemed musically unrelated to the first two movements, and he thought it was insufficient in compositional form or development to stand as the finale of a major work. It was important to Briselli that the commission be as substantial as the other major concertos in his repertoire that he was offering for prospective orchestra engagements.

Briselli asked Barber if he would rewrite the finale; he could premier it at a later date to give Barber more time if needed. He suggested possible ways in which the movement could be deepened or expanded; perhaps even changing its form altogether such as a sonata-rondo; that perhaps he might expand the third movement while possibly retaining the moto perpetuo as the middle section and giving it more clearly defined structural parameters. Briselli felt that only then would it be a complete, first-class concerto.

Despite Briselli’s prodding, Barber was dismissive of his suggestions and declined to alter it.
Barber liked what he had written: “But I could not destroy a movement in which I have complete confidence, out of artistic sincerity to myself. So we decided to abandon the project, with no hard feelings on either side.” He said he was “sorry not to have given Iso what he had hoped for.”

This was a big disappointment for Briselli. He believed that with a substantial third movement, the work could stand as a great American violin concerto. Briselli decided to hold his ground regarding the finale and chose to forego the concerto’s premier and relinquish his claim on it. From the time of its premier in 1941 to the present, critics remain divided as to the finale’s musical value and effectiveness. Although Barber continued to tinker with the concerto until making his final edits in 1949, the finale nevertheless remained a four-minute perpetual motion movement. But despite their disagreement on the concerto, contemporaries confirmed that the two men remained friends until Barber’s death. For a full account of the commission and to see Barber’s letters, visit http://www.isobriselli.com.

Ken May 31, 2011 at 10:47 AM

My apologies to Maestro Mostovoy for perpetuating this error here on our blog. He was a personal friend of Mr. Briselli, who passed away in 2005. No disrespect was intended to Mr. Briselli’s abilities or reputation, and I appreciate the link to the website listed above. I urge interested readers to visit this website.

Marc Mostovoy June 1, 2011 at 1:31 AM

Thank you Ken M. for your thoughtful reply. Apology appreciated and accepted. The Briselli family and I appreciate your kind response because it helps us in our efforts to correct the historical record. The untruths that have been circulating for decades about violinist Iso Briselli, emanating from the 1954 Broder biography, are finally being put to rest thanks in great part to the Samuel Simeon Fels Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. We thank you for referring your readers to the http://www.isobriselli website which shares correspondence from that collection (including Barber’s own letters) as well as the most accurate up-to-date information about the commission.

Marc Mostovoy

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