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The Adagio for Strings (an arrangement of the second movement
of the String Quartet) represents a turning point in the composer's
career. After this, virtually all of Barber's works were composed as commissions
for prominent performers or ensembles.
His skill in writing extended, elegiac melodies is exemplified by the
Violin Concerto. This was not his first work for the instrument.
A Violin Sonata (1928), with which he won his first Beam Award
the same year, is sadly lost. The Violin Concerto was interrupted
in its original flow and planning by World War II. It had been in the spring
of 1939, barely eighteen months after the first European and American performances
of the Schumann Violin Concerto, that Samuel Fels commissioned the
work. It was to be for his adopted son, the Italian prodigy Iso Briselli
who was, at the time, a student at the Curtis Institute.
During the summer of that year, after having visited England and Scotland,
Barber settled in the village of Sils-Maria in Switzerland to begin work
on this commission. It was slow to progress, and he decided to head off
for Paris, planing to complete it there by the autumn of the same year.
Was inspiration missing? Was the atmosphere of a Europe too-still, and
on the point of igniting into war, disturbing his peace of mind?
As a concept, inspiration is a luxury. Haydn didn't sit contemplating
his view waiting for the heavens to open and a magical theme to fall through
his quill onto the manuscript. Like Bach and so many others, compositions
had to be provided as and when they were required. An employee had to do
his job. The lack of inspiration and the entire concept of its very necessity
being an ingredient for enabling artistic creation, were no excuses for
not writing good music, on time, as and when required.
Of course, many musicians of those far-distant epochs must have found
the chains of such stipulations very difficult to bear. In the twentieth
century, a commission didn't give the composer the feeling of being
'employed', but it was a contract, once established. As is so
often the case, the tricks of fate and history are unexpected. Here was
Samuel Barber in neutral Swiss territory, in a peaceful, rural setting,
unable to progress with his concerto as he wished. The fee having been paid
in advance, he was under a certain pressure.
The first two movements had, however, been completed by the end of that
summer, so he sent them to Fels/Briselli from Switzerland to illustrate
that all was well. They demonstrate most admirably Barber's gift as
a distinguished melodist. This was an orchestrator of a rich palette, and
master of well-crafted, formal design. Fluent counterpoint and haunting
themes are often assigned to solo woodwind instruments in all Barber's
works, reflecting his strong, vocal orientation. The Violin Concerto
was no exception.
Copyright © 26 April 2002
Jennifer Paull, Vouvry, Switzerland
JENNIFER PAULL'S AMORIS INTERNATIONAL
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