Born in 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Samuel Barber first studied music at the feet of his mother. A talented pianist, his mother spent many afternoons in the family home playing for her sister, a leading contralto in the Metropolitan Opera. At the age of 9, the young Samuel wrote a letter begging his mother not to make him play football and declaring his intention to become a composer. When he was 14, she enrolled him in the Curtis Institute of Music, where he became a prodigy in composition, voice, and piano.
At a time when other composers were experimenting with modernism, Barber turned instead to traditional forms. He felt great affinity for Bach and Brahms and learned from them a style characterized as much by logical, architectural structures as by an emotive melodic voice. Nevertheless, Barber also drew eclectically from contemporary influences such as jazz and the twelve-tone scale, with the result being the fresh, authentically American sound exemplified in the violin concerto.
Rewarding for soloists and public alike, the violin concerto was written in 1939 in answer to a commission by a Philadelphia industrialist on behalf of his ward, a fellow student of Barber’s at the Curtis Institute. Barber accepted the commission and went to Switzerland to begin work. His plans were interrupted, however, by the impending war, and the concerto was finished in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.
The student received the concerto with enthusiasm, but was made by his teacher to decline it on grounds that it was “not strong, not majestic,” and did “not contain enough dramatic moments.” Of the finale, the teacher said that “it was a dangerous thought from the very beginning, to make a perpetual motion movement without a breath of rest and without melodic parts.”
Asked for a rewrite, Barber declined, saying, “I could not destroy a movement in which I have complete confidence, out of artistic sincerity to myself.” Released from the contract, Barber arranged for the concerto to be performed at the Curtis Institute under the direction of Fritz Reiner. That performance brought the piece to the attention of Eugene Ormandy, who scheduled its official premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1941. The premiere was followed by a repeat performance in Carnegie Hall, after which the piece rapidly entered the standard repertoire, becoming one of the most frequently performed of all 20th-century concertos.
Hailed for writing which is simultaneously virtuosic and beautiful, the concerto has become a hallmark of American classical music. In the words of Pierre Brévignon, Barber’s French biographer, the concerto “remains forever part of the Americana, in the same way as the Empire State Building, the cinnamon doughnut, Road 66 or the Marx Brothers do.”
Barber provided these program notes for the Philadelphia premiere:
The first movement — allegro molto moderato — begins with a lyrical first subject announced at once by the solo violin, without any orchestral introduction. This movement as a whole has perhaps more the character of a sonata than concerto form. The second movement — andante sostenuto — is introduced by an extended oboe solo. The violin enters with a contrasting and rhapsodic theme, after which it repeats the oboe melody of the beginning. The last movement, a perpetuum mobile, exploits the more brilliant and virtuosic character of the violin.
New World Symphony by Antonín Dvořák
In Bohemia, wrote Antonín Dvořák, “every child must learn music, and if possible sing in the church. After church the people revel in music and dancing, sometimes until early morning.” His own childhood was no exception. As a boy, he entertained guests at his father’s inn with dance tunes on the violin. He performed at village fairs and sang in the church choir. He was enthralled with the music of passing gypsy bands, and never tired of hearing oldsters sing their songs. His colorful musical upbringing led to a life-long interest in folk music.
At age 16 he entered the Organ School in Prague and found work in the orchestra of the National Opera, slogging through years, he would later write, of “hard study, occasional composing, much revision, a great deal of thinking, and very little eating.” His fortunes climbed when he met Johannes Brahms. Brahms took a mentoring interest in the young artist and persuaded him to write a set of dances patterned after Brahms’ own Hungarian Dances. While the Slavonic Dances brought Dvořák very little income—he sold them for a flat fee—they succeeded in making him famous throughout Europe. His fame soon crossed the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in an invitation to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Attracted by a salary twenty times greater than he could earn in Prague, Dvořák accepted the position in 1892 and was warmly received by the American musical public.
He suffered keenly from homesickness, however, and spent his summers in Spillville, Iowa, a small town populated by Bohemians. It was here that he composed a symphony to be subtitled From the New World. The symphony drew from a dual heritage. It flashed with the pyrotechnics of Dvořák’s Bohemian gypsies, but it also drew from the Negro spirituals to which his American pupils had introduced him. Dvořák said, “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.”
One of the most beloved moments in classical music, the second movement is built around an elegiac melody for the English horn. This melody has the unmistakable personality of a spiritual, so much so that Dvořák is sometimes falsely said to have collected it. One of his pupils later wrote words to it. The song that resulted, “Goin’ Home,” became almost as famous as the original.
The symphony was introduced by the New York Philharmonic on December 15, 1893, and became an instant success. The second movement brought on a scene “of wild enthusiasm” and the composer was compelled to take bow after bow in his seat in an upper-tier box. “The public applauded so much that I felt like a king in my box,” he said. Responding to popular demand, the New York Philharmonic played the symphony twice more that same season. Two weeks later, the Boston Symphony introduced it in Boston and repeated it at least once each season for the next several years.
Despite his American success, Dvořák longed for his native soil, and decided in 1895 to return home. He spent his final years in Prague composing opera and chamber music and teaching at the Prague Conservatory. His funeral, in May 1904, caused a national day of mourning.
© 2012 Heidi Rodeback