There are Two Sides to the Story of Barber’s Violin Concerto: You Decide!

Feb 15, 2018

Violinist Iso Briselli

In September of last year, we released a historical story for the Symphonies of Iowa broadcast of Orchestra Iowa’s “American Mystics” concert. The version that we published was adapted from the Nathan Broder biography of Samuel Barber; the same source used by many major symphonies for their program notes for Barber’s Violin Concerto. However, it has come to light that the Broder version of events may not be accurate. Last year, we published the following:

“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.

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.”

The Iso Briselli estate asserts that, “Primary source material uncovered in 2010 pertaining to the Barber violin concerto adds significantly to our knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the concerto's commission. Correspondence from the Samuel Simeon Fels Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania refutes the often quoted Nathan Broder biography of Barber that Iso Briselli, the violinist for whom the work was written, rejected it because he found the third movement too difficult. Personal letters of Samuel Barber, Samuel Fels and Albert Meiff (Briselli's violin coach) dispel all the myths that have appeared over the years about the concerto, and should be of special interest to program annotators.”

You can read more about the Iso Briselli version of events at, and decide for yourself!