Program Notes: Barber Violin Concerto

Conductor Shiyeon Sung leads the Seattle Symphony in music by Erich Korngold, Samuel Barber and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky on Thursday, October 8, 2020 at 7:30pm on Seattle Symphony Live


Tänzchen im alten Stil (“Dance in the Old Style”)

BORN: May 29, 1897 in Brünn, Moravia, Austria-Hungary
DIED: November 29, 1957 in Los Angeles, California
WORK PREMIERED: July 10, 2007 by the Jyväskylä Sinfonia, conducted by John Storgårds

The first work on this evening’s program comes from Erich Korngold (1897-1957). Growing up in Vienna, he was hailed as a musical child prodigy, declared a musical genius and wunderkind (wonder child) by no less a figure than Gustav Mahler. Korngold premiered his ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman) to great success at age eleven, the first of many successes in his early career. His acclaimed opera Die tote Stadt was another, produced before his twenty-fourth birthday. In 1934 Korngold fled Austria, to find a home in Los Angeles and new fame as one of the great Hollywood film composers.

Korngold composed tonight’s Tänzchen im alten Stil (“Dance in the Old Style”) during a productive period following the end of World War I. A clever take on the classic Viennese waltz, Korngold sets the piece in ternary (ABA) form. The A theme opens with joyous runs passed throughout the woodwinds. This delightful opening continues as the strings pick up the melody, punctuated with emphatic brass. In contrast, the B theme features a deeply emotive cello solo that hints at Korngold’s success scoring love scenes on the silver screen. The woodwinds return for a final statement of A, but Korngold subverts expectations in the final moments of the piece by combining the A and B themes together for a charming finish to his dance.

Scored for 2 flutes; 2 oboes; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; 2 horns; 2 trumpets; timpani and percussion; strings


Violin Concerto, Op. 14
Presto in moto perpetuo

BORN: March 9, 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania
DIED: January 23, 1981 in New York, New York
WORK PREMIERED: February 7, 1941 by violinist Albert Spalding and the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy

A contemporary of Korngold, American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) composed his Violin Concerto, Op. 14 under the clouds of World War II. Barber graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1934. He threw himself into his composing career. His most famous work, the Adagio for Strings, dates from these years. Samuel Fels, an influential patron on the school’s board of directors, commissioned a violin concerto from Barber in 1939 for his ward, Iso Briselli. Barber immediately took up the work and spent time in Europe during the composition period - initially soaking up the natural beauty of Switzerland where he worked on the first two movements, then in Paris where he intended to finish the concerto. Work was abruptly paused as the War engulfed Europe. Barber returned to the United States out of necessity, completed the final movement, and sent the manuscript off to Briselli for approval.

And yet, the drama surrounding Barber’s Violin Concerto was not over. Historians debate the reasons for Briselli’s response, but all agree that Briselli did not like the composition. Some scholars argue that the young violinist felt the first two movements were drastically mismatched from the final while others suggest that the work was too difficult for Briselli to perform. Whatever the reason may have been, Briselli rejected the Violin Concerto. Barber was not deterred, however, and set out to find a violinist to premiere his piece. Several performers tested out the work, but finally the virtuoso Albert Spalding introduced the work in 1941 along with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Following a traditional three-movement concerto form, Barber’s Violin Concerto oscillates between romantic yearning and frenetic movement. Barber described his work as “lyric and intimate in character,” although he also noted that the finale “exploits the more brilliant and virtuoso characteristics of the violin.” The first movement begins with the solo violin exploring a lyrical and warm theme. Throughout the movement, the violin converses with the orchestra as they move between joyful exaltations and emotional reflections. In contrast, the second movement opens with a simple and peaceful oboe solo. The entrance of the soloist continues this slow movement with a rhapsodic melody and multiple repetitions of the oboe’s opening lyricism. The finale abruptly turns away from the sentimentality of the previous movements, however, demanding great virtuosity from the soloist. The concerto ends at a break-neck speed and the orchestra emphatically accentuates the violin’s final, dramatic flourishes.

Scored for solo violin; 2 flutes; 2 oboes; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; 2 horns; 2 trumpets; timpani and percussion; piano; strings


Serenade in C major for Strings, Op. 48, TH 48
Pezzo in forma di Sonatina—
Finale: Tema Russo

BORN: May 7, 1840 in Votkinsk, Russia
DIED: November 6, 1894 in Saint Petersburg, Russia
WORK PREMIERED: October 30, 1881. Eduard Nápravník conducted in Saint Petersburg

The final piece on tonight’s program is an affecting work for string orchestra by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), a Russian composer during the 19th century. Tchaikovsky composed the work following his tenure at the Moscow Conservatory where he was Professor of Music Theory. He was able to leave his post, however, thanks to the generous patronage of Madame Nadezhda von Meck. A Russian widow with an immense fortune, Madame von Meck supported the arts and first began correspondence with Tchaikovsky in 1876 after commissioning him to write a work for her domestic ensemble. The friendship between the two deepened and the widow’s generous patronage allowed Tchaikovsky to travel and compose full-time.

Tchaikovsky’s letters to Madame von Meck contained many personal details, such as his struggles with marriage, but also updated his patron on his work. In the fall of 1880, Tchaikovsky wrote to Madame von Meck about the two pieces he was working on, including the 1812 Overture as well as tonight’s Serenade in C major for Strings, Op. 48. Tchaikovsky claimed that the 1812 Overture was of “no artistic worth” but spoke more highly of his serenade: “I wrote from inner compulsion. This is a piece from the heart and so, I venture to say, it does not lack artistic worth.”

Although it would be the overture that received worldwide fame, Tchaikovsky’s serenade remains a beautiful representation of the composer’s genius for lyrical melodies and dark, melancholy harmonies. The first movement opens with emphatic chords followed by a sonorous, slow melody that Tchaikovsky intended as an emulation of Mozart. The second movement, in contrast, features a delightful waltz reminiscent of the composer’s many ballets. Entitled Élégie, the expressive third movement provides a moment of reflection. Tchaikovsky briefly returns to pathos in the last movement, circling back to the melancholy atmosphere of the first movement before abruptly shifting to energetic folk-infused music. The work ends with a return to the serenade’s opening emphatic chords before culminating in lively arpeggios. Tchaikovsky pushes the melancholy aside for a bright and optimistic finale.

Scored for strings

© 2020 Megan Francisco