Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto

Given the great success of the Adagio for Strings, Samuel Barber could have been forgiven for resting on his musical laurels in the late 1930s. But the American composer was having none of it: he set about working on his only Violin Concerto in 1939, just a year after the Adagio’s premiere.

Initially, the composer’s reasons for cracking on with a new work were primarily financial: he’d been commissioned to write a violin concerto by one Samuel Fels, father to one of Barber’s classmates at the Curtis Institute of Music and a Philadelphia industrialist. Fels was a wealthy man, but a seemingly demanding one, too. Far from letting Barber compose at a distance, Fels, it’s said, gave continued feedback on what he did and didn’t like. At first, the work was too simplistic. Barber’s solution? Add a fiendishly challenging finale. Fels’s response? It had become too complex. Back and forth they went, the composer duly making changes against his wishes – presumably because he knew that a worthwhile pay cheque awaited him at the end of his endeavours.

Today, it’s the soulful, intense middle movement of the concerto that guarantees its enduring popularity. The violin seems at times to be almost wrestling with the orchestra, before reaching a position of serene contentment – only to find itself wrought in conflict again a few moments later. Stunning stuff.


Recommended recordings:

Joshua Bell (violin); Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; David Zinman (conductor).

Classic FM: CFM FW 004.

Illustration: Mark Millington