Corrections to the history behind the Barber Violin Concerto commission

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: 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.

Yours sincerely,

Marc S. Mostovoy

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11 comments for “Corrections to the history behind the Barber Violin Concerto commission

  1. Rod
    August 26, 2010 at

    I love it. When I first started listening to it properly about ten years ago, I was often near tears, or in tears, during parts of the first and second movements. Now, with the passage of time, I still listen to it with the greatest affection, and am not put off by the evident simplicity of its overall construction. Would any of us bring the same rather pointless rigour to an appreciation of a really good pop song?

    As for the "problematic" disconnect between the first two movements and the final movement: this is not a serious complaint. The laugh out loud brilliance of this short movement is a perfect, sbering, joyful resolution to the lingering unease which can build in a listener through the first two movements. It is what it is. An absolute joy. Orchestras like playing it, violinists love playing it.

    Barber found himself rather inconveniently a talented late Romantic colourist when the era had passed. So what? He pleases us with much of his output. Not a great figure, really, but someone to be grateful for when you reach for some uncomplicated pleasure from your CD collection.

    • August 26, 2010 at

      Hello Rod. I agree with you. The piece seems perfect the way it is. However, I believe the corrections to the rumors are important for the legacy of the performer to which they are directed.

      Thanks for your comment!


  2. John Peacock
    May 28, 2010 at

    You don't have to be a great musician in order to have a valid opinion about a piece of music. Personally, I've always thought it a great shame that the Barber finale isn't on the same planet as the first two movements. It's like a modern architect who insists on depositing some glass monstrosity in a street full of 18th century stonework: the new buliding may have merit on its own terms, but it fails if it doesn't attempt to establish a relation with its neighbours. With the Barber finale, I almost feel I'm being mocked for loving the lyrical beauty of the first two movements, and I wish he hadn't spoiled things in that way.

    • May 28, 2010 at

      Good point. We don’t need to know the history to hear for ourselves where the inconsistency lies. Not with the performer of the piece, but in the music. Still I love the piece and don’t mind the jarring change in the last movement. Thanks for your comment. John

  3. Guest
    May 26, 2010 at

    Barber: One of the great composers of the 20th century
    Barber's Violin Concerto: One of a handful of most popular violin concertos being performed today
    Briselli: who? some guy who thought the piece wasn't good enough. Oops.

  4. May 23, 2010 at

    This is a great concerto…. when I heard the second movement it changed my whole view of the concerto

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