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A Night At The Symphony: Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto Opus 14

Updated on December 4, 2014
Samuel Barber
Samuel Barber | Source

"Dear Mother: I have written to tell you my worrying secret. Now don’t cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now, without any nonsense. To begin with I was not meant to be an athlete. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure. I’ll ask you one more thing .—Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football.—Please—Sometimes I’ve been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very)." A Letter From Samuel Barber to His Mother.

Samuel Barber

Around my ninth birthday I sat at our families piano and practiced my scales and chords. I had been practicing everyday for six years and felt comfortable in sheet music. I practiced mostly Beethoven and Mozart with a few contemporary educational pieces thrown in the mix.

All I knew was that I needed to practice. We were going to visit my Aunt in Berkeley in a few weeks and I wanted to share all that I had learned with my Cousin Jenny. I was nervous and tried to use my nerves as a tool to increase the potency of my practice.

I did not know then that I would fall deeply in love with classical music and fall deeply out of practice with the piano. Most of my passion lies with the composers of the Baroque Era of music, but I keep my ear open to the contemporary where I have heard Phillip Glass and Samuel Barber.

Samuel Barber has been considered one the greatest contemporary American composers and this title is easy to digest after listening to his Adagio for Strings.

His Adagio for Strings leaves a haunting beauty that stays with me long after the joy of hearing his work for violin.

I listened to his work and read up on his life that seemed full of compositions and the pain of alchoholism and depression. I contemplated what my plan was for this hub. Should I write strictly about the history of the man and his place in music or center more on one aspect of his career. Perhaps his deep love of poetry that inspired many of his works.

After much consideration I decided to write about the controversy surrounding his Violin Concerto, Op.14. Everyone loves a good controversy!

By the time Samuel Barber was asked to write his Opus 14 he had earned his credentials as a composer of complicated violin pieces which some had considered an honor to try to play.

Samuel Barber with who?
Samuel Barber with who? | Source

Iso Briselli and the Commission

The time had come for me and my family to drive to Berkeley. I packed up my sheet music and my pride as we left Nevada and headed towards California. During the drive I daydreamed about an older me playing the piano in a large concert hall surrounded by adoring fans.

I dreamed about my passion towards the music and how happy I was to share. This was only a daydream though, and as I awoke and stared out over the rolling hills, on the way to Berkeley, I found myself slightly scared that I would not live up to my expectations.

Samuel S. Fels, the industrialist who mass produced Fels Laundry Bars, asked Samuel Barber to compose a piece of violin music for Isaak Briselli.

Isaak Briselli was born in Odessa Russia and began playing violin at the age of three. When Isaak Briselli was seven he was accepted into the Stolyarsky Conservatory of Music.

His family escaped from Russia when it became dangerous to be jewish and moved to Germany in 1922 where he studied under the master Carl Flesch.

When Dr. Flesch was accepted as a professor at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia he took Isaak with him. Isaak thrived at the Curtis Insitute and became a great violin player.

Samuel Fels offered Sameul Barber $1000 for a composition that would challenge Isaak Briselli. He promised Samuel Barber half before composition and half after completion.

Iso Briselli
Iso Briselli | Source

What Happened to The Violin Concerto Opus 14

By the time we arrived in Berkeley I was scared I would not be able to play a note. I wished that we had never come and I found myself filled with dread.

So where is the controversy in this commission? The commission was not completed in time and Isaak Briselli did not have the honor of playing Barber's Opus.

The rumor stated that Isaak Briselli was not capable of playing the composition. There is more to the story than this but this was what was commonly believed.

The truth is that Isaak Briselli was unhappy with a small portion of the Opus and had asked Barber to make changes. The changes were never made and Barber did not reach the deadline for the commission and he kept the five hundred dollars.

So contrary to the belief that Barber composed a piece too complicated for the great Briselli was false. The facts that led to the truth were uncovered in letters between Fels, Barber, and Briselli years after the controversy. These letters are found in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania archives.

The Violin Concerto, Op. 14 was completed by Barber after the commission deadline and had success with the New York Philharmonic.

A Quick Talk About My Love of Classical Music

We arrived in Berkeley late in the evening and did not have time to perform in front of my Aunt or Cousin. I slept soundly that evening with no dreams and no disruptions.

The following morning, during breakfast, I sat at my Aunts piano to play a piece from Grieg that I had been practicing. I was able to play the whole piece without many mistakes and was holding myself up high with pride as my cousin came out of her room with her violin.

The room was quite when she began to play. I remember this remarkable sound resonating throughout my ears and I remember a tear fell from my eye. At first I felt like Salieri in Amadeus and was filled with envy. Yet, the more I listened, the more I realized that my life goal was to create beauty.

Music never became my forte, yet poetry has. Everyday I battle with the struggle of trying to create something beautiful and meaningful. I think that Samuel Barber battled with the same issues, even though I have only briefly touched the beauty that he was able to create.

Remember to keep listening and support your local musicians by attending a Local Symphony performance every once and awhile.


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    • jhamann profile imageAUTHOR

      Jamie Lee Hamann 

      4 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you suzzettenaples for your wonderful comment. Jamie

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      Jamie: This piece is beautiful and so melodic, yet a bit sad. I too played the piano as a child and I too wanted to be a pianist. Not to be for me either. I just didn't have the natural talent. I too had a cousin who was and is a musician and can play naturally. Today he plays the bass guitar in a band outside of DC. I too have felt that envy. I can't believe we have experienced the same thing. And, here I am writing short stories. That is my forte. Your poetry is beautiful, Jamie and we have to be grateful for the talents we do have. We can bring beauty into the world through our talents too, as you have pointed out. This piece is just so beautiful, melancholy and haunting. I love it. Thanks for sharing this with us, and the story behind it!

    • jhamann profile imageAUTHOR

      Jamie Lee Hamann 

      4 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you loveofnight. Jamie

    • jhamann profile imageAUTHOR

      Jamie Lee Hamann 

      4 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you Faith Reaper for your support and I am glad you enjoyed this hub, I was trying some different things. jamie

    • loveofnight profile image


      4 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

      you have done an awesome job on this very informative hub, thanks for the share.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      4 years ago from southern USA

      Wow, Jamie, this is an interesting and excellent write! I am glad you chose to write about the controversy surrounding his Violin Concerto, Op.14. And, yes, everyone loves a good controversy!. I found Samuel Barber's letter to his mother heartrending for sure. I can imagine how his mother felt.

      Up and more and sharing

      Blessings, Faith Reaper


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