Speck Speaks

 Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto 

We sometimes forget that our favorite music was once brand new and got lousy reviews. And nowhere is that more common than in the world of solo concertos. There’s a long tradition of soloists disliking the concertos that were written for them. 

For example, Peter Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto and his violin concerto both received scathing criticism from the men he wrote them for. (“Unplayable! Worthless! Clumsy! Vulgar! Stolen! Hostile to the instrument!”) It’s enough to make you give up. You’d truly have to have the courage of your convictions to keep going in the face of this kind of invective. But Tchaikovsky refused to alter a single note. 

A similar thing happened to Samuel Barber (who, spoiler alert, is a strong contender for my “favorite 20th-Century composer” award). In 1939 a Philadelphia industrialist commissioned Barber to write a violin concerto for his favorite violinist and ward, Iso Briselli to premiere the following January. Barber enthusiastically set about composing the piece. The violinist was happy with the first two movements but – perhaps spurred on by his patron – had plenty of reservations about the perpetual motion finale. He considered it “unviolinistic,” too light and frothy to be substantial, and (maybe most to the point) too tricky to get into good shape for the premiere. And he asked Barber to rewrite it. 

Like Tchaikovsky before him, Samuel Barber had the courage of his convictions. He refused to alter the concerto. Briselli refused to play it in January – and so the planned premiere did not take place. In Barber’s words, “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 did ask to keep his $500 advance, though. 

Scott Speck, MSO Music Director