I was just emailed by a Mr. Marc S. Mostovoy setting straight the famous story regarding the commission of Barber's Violin Concerto. Apparently, the soloist for whom it was written, Iso Briselli, is innocent of the story's reputed "inability" to play the third movement. Below is Mr. Mostovoy's explanation of the real story. He also suggested referring to the website about the entire history at "Iso Briselli and the Barber Violin Concerto, Facts and Fiction".
I read with interest your comments about the Barber violin concerto on your blog. As a friend and admirer of the late violinist Iso Briselli, and being involved in the effort to set the record straight concerning the commission, I thought you would be interested in knowing more about what actually transpired for future reference.
I can assure you that Mr. Briselli never found the third movement too difficult nor claimed it was too difficult. As Barbara Heyman (Barber’s biographer) noted, Briselli performed some of the most difficult violin repertoire to significant critical acclaim. Broder’s report of “unplayability” was simply a contrived excuse for Briselli’s rejection of the finale. Having spent the down-payment, Barber needed a way to salvage the commission. Barber and his backers consequently staged the “test” of the third movement’s playability without Briselli’s knowledge.
It is also untrue that when Briselli received the first two movements he worried that they were “too simple and not brilliant enough for a concerto” (Broder biography). Indeed, “when the first two movements arrived, Briselli received them with great enthusiasm” (Briselli website) and “he believed the first two movements were beautiful” (Heyman interview).
What many seem to be missing here is that Briselli, recognizing the merits of the first two movements, urged Barber to compose an equally great last movement knowing the concerto could rank among the finest. He felt the third movement was, in his words, “too lightweight” and it “didn’t work well with what came before.” Briselli suggested to Barber that perhaps he might expand the third movement while possibly retaining the moto perpetuo. But despite Briselli’s prodding, Barber declined, thereby turning out an “almost” great concerto.
Further, it was Briselli himself who declined the premier as a matter of principle. Based on the classical idiom in which he was trained, the concerto he received was not the completely finished work he had expected. In no way did he have to relinquish his right to the first performance
It is not surprising that Barber resisted making changes to the third movement. By the time of the commission, he had gained fame and somewhat of an “attitude.” Briselli confided to me that Barber reacted with annoyance and was dismissive of any suggestion to change the third movement. Moreover, we know that Barber had received other commissions and was pressed for time. And, as James M. Keller, program annotator for the New York Philharmonic pointed out, “In fact, this was not the only time Barber was flummoxed by a finale.” Although we know Barber continued to tinker with it later, he was apparently unable to alter the finale successfully.
As to all the false information circulated about the commission, consider the source: It emanated from Broder’s biography, and his bias was predictable. It can’t be overemphasized that, not only did G. Schirmer, Inc. publish Broder’s biography of Barber, it published, promoted and marketed all of Barber’s music; similarly, not only did Broder author Barber’s biography, he managed the publications department of Schirmer. Accordingly, Schirmer and Broder promoted the Barber version of the controversy. Furthermore, Broder never made an effort to contact Briselli to verify facts before publishing his book even though Briselli was easily reachable. The consequence was a publication filled with factual errors.
Although Briselli did not initiate any action in response to Broder’s publication, he strenuously objected to its insulting and erroneous version of events. According to Briselli’s widow Sylvia, after Schirmer published Nathan Broder's book in 1954, Briselli began receiving calls from friends, some bemused, some outraged, alerting him to its content. She remembers that when she went to the library with him to read the account, he reacted as though in pain and with tremendous dismay. Weighing the options and being a non-litigious person in a much less litigious time, he decided not to bring a lawsuit for defamation, though there was clear justification. Mrs. Briselli recalls he reasoned that by bringing what would surely be a publicized lawsuit, he would inflate the book's importance. Instead, he believed the book, with its factual errors and relatively limited distribution, would simply fade with time. He felt secure enough in his reputation among his peers to turn his back on the entire matter (Briselli website).
As the popularity of the concerto grew in the nineties, Briselli began to have second thoughts. Many leading violinists were now performing and recording it. Unfortunately, many of those writing liner notes for recordings and program notes for performances referred to the Broder biography for the concerto’s history, repeating the myth of Briselli’s inability to play the third movement and his dissatisfaction with the first two. I persistently pressed him to take action to counter the untruths being circulated so that history might judge him fairly. Eventually-- against his nature--he relented. Hence, a firmly worded letter from Briselli’s attorney in Philadelphia was sent out across this country and abroad threatening legal action if the defamatory version of events were repeated. Based on the evidence presented by his attorney, Alan L. Spielman, and their own investigations, recording companies and orchestras revised their notes on the concerto to present a more accurate account of what had transpired. I urge you to visit: http://www.isobriselli.com for the full story of the circumstances surrounding the commission.
Finally, as a matter of interest, Briselli continued to play the concerto for himself and friends—despite his unhappiness with last movement’s weakness. And regardless of their differences, the two remained friends for the rest of Barber’s life. When writing or conversing about the concerto in the future, I kindly ask that you impart what actually transpired. Thank you very much for your attention to this matter and please feel free to contact me should you have any questions.
Marc S. Mostovoy