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FRAZIN In the Forests of the Night
BARBER Violin Concerto, Op.14
PROGRAM NOTES BY PAMELA FEO (ALL RIGHTS RESERVED) & HOWARD FRAZIN
Samuel Barber’s first major commission came from Samuel Fels of the Fels-Naptha Soap Company, who, in 1939, asked Barber for a violin concerto for his son, Iso Briselli (who had graduated alongside Barber from the Curtis Institute of Music in 1934). Barber started working on the piece that summer in Switzerland, though he had to return to the United States due to the threat of impending war, and eventually finished his composition in Pennsylvania in 1940. The version that is always heard in performances today reflects revisions he made in 1948.
Briselli received the first two movements of the concerto with enthusiasm, but disagreements between the composer and the soloist over the third movement led to the dissolution of their collaboration. Two versions of this story have been perpetuated by biographers of Barber. The first version appears in Nathan Broder’s 1954 biography, the first serious study of Barber, wherein Broder recounts that Briselli found the third movement to be difficult and unplayable. Perhaps this was the version that Broder heard from Barber himself; at any rate, given Briselli’s technical capabilities, this story seems unlikely. Barbara Heyman offers a different account in her 1992 biography, now the authoritative source on Barber: according to Heyman, Briselli found the last movement “too lightweight” for a finale, and he suggested changes to the score that Barber did not wish to make. Either way, both accounts reflect a notable aesthetic shift as the piece enters the third movement.
Briselli and Barber remained friends, but parted ways professionally, with the violinist performing a different piece at the concert meant for Barber’s commission, and the composer finding another soloist for his piece. Violinist Albert Spalding, who had been searching for an American concerto to perform, immediately agreed to perform the work, and it was premiered successfully with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra on February 7, 1941. The revised version was first played by Ruth Posselt with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony in 1949.
Barber’s signature lyricism pervades the first two movements and is evident from the very opening. With no orchestral introduction to settle the listener, we are immediately whisked away by an elegant and seemingly endless violin line. The clarinet introduces a syncopated, bouncier theme that becomes a point of return throughout the movement. More jagged themes lead to moments of tension, but they always subside to a lush ensemble that is sweet and hopeful, and which, at times, soars. The subdued yet expressive second movement opens with a poignant oboe melody. The violin enters with a contrasting theme, eventually taking on the oboe’s material and leading into a searing close.
The contrasting third movement signals a shift with an opening roll on the timpani. Then the violin departs upon an anxious, perpetually moving line, playing for over a hundred measures before its first break. Its journey is marked by wide leaps, chromaticism, metrical shifts, and distant harmonic relations, and is punctuated along the way by various instrumental groupings. It ends almost as suddenly as it begins, and the concerto reels to a close.
© Pamela Feo
Towards the end of his life, Mozart wrote three symphonies in rapid succession which became the pinnacle of his symphonic repertoire: No. 39 in E-flat Major, No. 40 in G Minor, and No. 41 in C Major, the Jupiter. They were written in just over two months during the summer of 1788. This staggering pace is all the more astounding considering his personal trials during this time: he was grieving the death of his six-month-old daughter Theresia, and was in the midst of moving to a new apartment and trying to borrow money to help alleviate financial difficulties, all while teaching piano lessons and composing other pieces. It is not clear when the work premiered, and it may not have even been during Mozart’s lifetime. Mozart died three years after he finished it, rendering Jupiter his last symphony, but one that shows a brilliant symphonist at his peak, leaving us to wonder what could have been if he had been granted more time to compose.
The Jupiter Symphony is a display of contrapuntal ingenuity, presented with a magnitude of scale that anticipates later works by Beethoven and other nineteenth-century composers; it also prefigures the Romantic importance of the coda. It was, in fact, Jupiter’s coda that dazzled listeners with its unprecedented density of material. In the 1828 Mozart biography, Georg Nikolaus von Nissen writes of it, “In no work of this kind does the divine spark of genius shine more brightly and more beautifully.” Musicologist Elaine Sisman calls it an example of the “sublime” in music: that mixture of beauty and power that so overwhelms as to be nearly impossible to take in.
The density of material is already apparent in the first movement, which, however, maintains a stately pace and a sense of balance—a hallmark of Mozart’s music. It is thought that the nobility of this movement is what inspired the impresario Johann Peter Salomon to give it the nickname Jupiter, after the Roman god. The bold, bright, opening theme and fanfares is followed by a lighter second theme, based on Mozart’s comic aria Un bacio di mano. The rest of the movement unfolds according to sonata form (the standard form for first movements of Classical symphonies), with thematic and harmonic development, and a recapitulation of the opening material back in the home key.
The slow second movement, Andante cantabile, features lyrical passages, which are first heard in muted violins. Recurring triplets in the second violin create mild rhythmic propulsion. Again there are two main themes, the second one lending a touch of darkness to the movement, but overall it is serene and gentle.
The third movement is the typical Minuet and Trio. In the Minuet, woodwinds develop a descending chromatic line introduced by the violins. A four-note motif makes its first appearance in the Trio (here is the minor mode) as a hint of what is to come.
The motif returns at the opening of the finale, now in the major mode: four whole notes which continue to stand out against more intricate melodies that build up the layers of this movement. One by one all five themes are introduced and developed in exultant counterpoint. Then comes the coda: after a brief interlude that quietly develops the four-note motif, bassoon, horn, and viola stride out confidently with a forte statement of this theme, and the five melodies sound simultaneously in a concluding fugal passage. The coda passes by in an instant, but it impresses with its density and intricacy, and is a spectacular finish to Mozart’s symphonic career.
© Pamela Feo