Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto had a very problematic beginning. In 1939, a Philadelphia businessman named Samuel Fels asked Barber to write a concerto for the violinist Iso Briselli. Barber started working on the first two movements in Switzerland, but had to return to the U.S. because of the war. He continued his compositional work in the Pocono Mountains.
Then the problems began. Barber gave the first two movements to Briselli. The violinist liked the music, but when he showed them to Albert Meiff, his violin coach in New York, Meiff thought they were poorly written and needed many changes. The New York violinist actually wrote to Fels and documented all the problems he saw in the piece.
In the meantime, Barber had finished the third movement and arranged for a reading of the movement at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia to be sure that was he was giving Briselli was technically feasible. Those who heard this private performance including Gian Carlo Menotti thought the movement was playable and was very high quality music.
But now it was Briselli who did not like it. Briselli felt it was too lightweight in comparison to the first two movements. After all of this, Barber did not change his piece, but Briselli did not premier it either. Despite the controversy which continues even today, the Violin Concerto has become one of the most frequently performed 20th-century concerti.
David Nelson is indebted to Marc Mostovoy, founder of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and a representative of the Briselli family, for his help in the preparation of this post.