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Program Notes: October 21, 2006

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 14

Samuel Barber

(born West Chester, PA, March 9,1910; died New York, January 23, 1981)

Perhaps more than any other composer of his time, Samuel Barber was the face of American music to the world, winning two Pulitzer Prizes, representing the U.S. in the first post-World War II international music festival, serving as vice-president of the International Music Council, attending the biennial Congress of Soviet Composers in Moscow in 1962, and being one of an elite group of composers commissioned to write music for the opening of Lincoln Center in New York City.

Barber showed a precocious musical talent by age seven. He studied voice and piano seriously at home in West Chester, Pennsylvania, until, at 14, he was accepted by the newly formed Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. An important early influence was the Irish music that he shared with the family’s cook; the lilting, mournful beauty so typical of Irish songs can often be heard in his compositions. Soon after he graduated from Curtis, he won the coveted Prix de Rome for composition.

In 1939, after Barber returned from three years abroad for the prize, wealthy Philadelphia industrialist Samuel Fels commissioned him to write a violin concerto. [The next three sentences were updated on June 1, 2011 to reflect 2010 research.] The intended soloist was Fels’ ward–and one of Barber’s Curtis classmates–Iso Briselli. Briselli decided that the third movement was too lightweight and musically unrelated to the earlier movements. Barber chose not to rewrite the movement, so they mutually agreed that Briselli would give up his rights to the piece. But the concerto soon impressed the likes of Fritz Reiner and Eugene Ormandy. Their premieres launched it firmly and lastingly as one of the most often played and best-loved concertos in the repertoire.

The concerto exemplifies Barber’s love of composing for the voice. From the first measures, the violin sings a beatific and melismatic rhapsody. Barber’s keen sense of balance soon asserts itself, however, as the sweetness is replaced by a jagged tune like an Irish seafaring song, and then by some markedly unrhapsodic dissonance whose anxious pathos is abetted by clever use of the piano. The movement develops these three seemingly incompatible elements at length, yet keeps them woven into the piece’s lyrical tone. The movement draws to a serenely pulsing close.

The Andante begins with a bittersweet, haunted hush, setting a backdrop of discontent against which a solo oboe’s exquisite melody rises poignantly. Like Barber’s 1936 Adagio for Strings, this simple oboe theme is almost indescribable in its beauty and melancholy, displaying the composer’s incredible gift for writing music filled with heartrending power, yet profound inner peace. The music turns increasingly inward when the solo violin finally enters after almost three minutes, waxing in an increasingly passionate reflection of the oboe’s statement, and melodically twisting from its former gracefulness to restless apprehension. When at last the original theme returns, it appears unobtrusively in the violin, as if it had been humming all along, waiting for the angst to subside. A final statement of the melody by the full orchestra reaches a magnificent climax. Then, softly, the music ebbs away into silence.

With the finale, all somberness and lyricism cease. The tempo marking is Presto in moto perpetuo (very fast perpetual motion). Picking up from the timpani’s quiet triplet opening, the solo violin races at breakneck speed while the orchestra becomes a virtuosic whirligig. This manic movement culminates with syncopated punctuations in the brass, punching their way to a breathless end.

Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Opus 27

Sergei Rachmaninoff

(born Oneg [Russia], April 1, 1873; died Beverly Hills, CA, March 28, 1943)

Sergei Rachmaninoff was perhaps the finest and most acclaimed of Russian pianists, conductors, and composers. Yet Russia’s political upheavals during World War I and the 1917 Revolution essentially made him a refugee, emigrating throughout Europe and the U.S. Without the money and possessions that he had left behind in Russia, he supported his family by concertizing and conducting, and often had to carve out time to compose.

It was during a short stay in Dresden between conducting commitments in 1906-07 that Rachmaninoff wrote his second symphony. His symphonic compositions owe a great debt to his compatriot composers Tchaikovsky (for the freedom to write intensely emotional music) and Rimsky-Korsakov (for breadth of orchestral color). With this heritage, Rachmaninoff evolved his own distinctive voice, richly lyrical, harmonically sophisticated, and structurally broad and ingenious. The Symphony No. 2 is arguably his best symphonic effort. Written at the pinnacle of his triple career as composer, performer, and conductor, this piece epitomizes musicianship.

The symphony is clever in its overall concept, as the thematic material dovetails across all four movements, creating a vast panorama while retaining an organic connectedness. Beyond its structural genius, however, what makes the symphony so accessible is its hallmark expressive Rachmaninoffian melodies, with moments of breathtaking power. The symphony is not a programmatic piece, but its length and overall effect are nothing short of epic.

The first movement’s opening Largo, brooding, undulating, and lugubrious, presents the thematic roots that become the Symphony’s “motto.” With the Allegro moderato, we hear the first full theme, a sensuously melting tune. A second theme, playful yet sentimental, leads to a grand orchestral swoop that will return in many forms during the third movement. The ensuing development displays Rachmaninoff’s ability to generate endless musical ideas that range over immense emotional terrain. As this lengthy movement comes to its tempestuous close, we are left with the feeling of having already come a long way in this epic.

The second movement, Allegro molto, acts as the scherzo in a typical symphonic structure, leaping out of the moment of silence like a race horse from the gate. The movement is built in an arch form, ABCAB. The galloping A section foreshadows the thematic material and sweep of the fourth movement. Part B is genuine Rachmaninoff lyricism, lush, lovely, and languorous. Part C is a fugal treatment of A. The movement closes pensively with Part B. Just before the end we hear a somber, liturgical chant in the brass, echoing the symphony’s opening “motto.” This theme will return much later, at an unexpected moment.

The third movement is a quintessential “Rachmaninoff Adagio” – a gentle, lyrical, wandering rhapsody. Its swooping opening motif harkens back to the first movement. The rhapsodic main theme, introduced by the clarinet, showcases Rachmaninoff’s deftness at making modestly simple melodies sound vast and deep. About halfway through the movement comes a delightful moment when the music seems to end, but, in fact, merely pauses before the Adagio sweetly stirs again. This lovely afterthought concludes with a blissful, prayer-like softness.

The Finale, Allegro vivace, crashes open in a carnival mood, horns yelping, trumpets proclaiming, strings and winds leaping. The first theme, derived from the second movement, evolves into a nifty little march-like section (a favorite form of Rachmaninoff’s). The second theme makes all manner of sweeping gestures. Once these themes have had their say, a clever development section sneaks in occasional snippets of themes from the earlier movements. Scalar figures soon erupt into the mix and the festive atmosphere grows to a clamor. The grand second theme returns in sheer glory, brilliantly weaving in bits of the first carnival theme as its underscoring. Then, from out of the depths, reminiscences of the liturgical brass chant of the second movement rise up through the commotion with unabashed might and optimism, bringing this epic symphony to a jubilant end.

—Max Derrickson

Updated 1 June 2011