The “Soap Opera” Drama Behind Barber’s Violin Concerto

Sep 13, 2017

In 1939, a budding young composer named Samuel Barber accepted a commission for a violin concerto by a wealthy businessman. The businessman’s adopted son, Iso Briselli, was a violin prodigy. That summer, Barber went to Switzerland and composed the first two movements of the concerto. When Briselli saw them, he complained that the music was “too simple and not brilliant enough for a concerto.” Their relationship was off to a less-than-ideal start. 

Orchestra Iowa concertmaster Dawn Gingrich

Barber finished the concerto with a dazzling “perpetuum mobile” finale that Briselli declared too difficult to play. His father refused to pay Barber for the commission. Barber decided to set up a demonstration to convince the businessman that he deserved to be paid. The demonstration took place at the Curtis Institute (where the businessman was a trustee). A gifted violin student there named Herbert Baumel learned the finale in just two hours and performed it in front of the founder of the Curtis institute, the distinguished Curtis director, and Barber himself. All of the “jury” concluded that Barber should be paid and that Briselli had to relinquish his right to the first performance of the piece. It was premiered in 1941 by violinist Albert Spalding with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Monday night is your last night to hear Orchestra Iowa’s concertmaster, Dawn Gingrich, perform Barber’s Violin Concerto. Orchestra Iowa also presents works by Hovhaness, Ives, and Howard Hanson. Rev up your devices, tune in, or log on Monday, September 18th at 7 p.m. for IPR’s Symphonies of Iowa encore broadcast!