Barber's Violin Concerto

If I approach this work (composed in 1939) with hostility, I can say nothing valuable about it. And if I object to the piece’s seeming lack of complexity, this only says that I personally prefer complex music, which I do, but which is totally irrelevant to any meaningful discussion of the Barber. One of the comments in these pages expressed incredulity that I could even consisder the possibility of Barber’s popularity waning. Well, I can conceive this possibility because of what happened to me from my conservatory days to the present, which is the central musical irony of my life. I used to love Barber, and American populism generally. I’ve always been attracted to the song literature, and Barber, Britten, and even Rorem meant a lot to me when I was 18-22 or so years old.  The irony is that my conservatory teachers had total contempt for this literature and my enjoyment of it, and pushed academic modernism on me as the only possible aesthetic. I pushed back, and my conservatory career was less successful than it could have been because of my stubborness. And I loathed Webern. This was unfortunate, because of the climate I inhabited at the time.  Nowadays, it is perfectly acceptable to prefer Barber to Webern. The irony is that my personal growth has led me in the completely opposite direction. So I’ve been at loggerheads both in my past and present.  I should’ve grown out of academic modernism and into neo-romantic lyricism instead of the other way around. That would’ve been convenient, alas.

Barber’s Violin Concerto is very close to certain aspects of “popular” music; it (the first two movements) exhibits complete unconsciousness.  It attempts, and magnificently succeeds in, creating obviously beautiful and appealing melodies. Make no mistake, Violin Concerto though it may be called, the first two movements are luscious songs. The extraordinarily clear and simple use of textbook sonata form in the first movement is there simply because the tunes have to be ordered in some way, and sonata form is as useful a vehicle for this purpose as anything else. Barber didn’t know much about the possibilities inherent in sonata form however, and most probably didn’t care about these possibilities; the mature Haydn or Beethoven at any time wouldn’t be caught dead concocting such a simple, textbook design.  Notice how Barber telegraphs the beginning of the development and the beginning of the coda with a similar textural device of tense timpani thumps undergirding a pensive passage in the violin.  Anyone can follow the design with absolute ease, as rarely happens in the classical masters.  Also, notice the clarity of the second subject, with its trademark “Scottish snaps”, can’t miss it.  In a quartet by Haydn or Mozart one is often hard put to categorize passages as subject, variation, or transition…not here. This is pleasing for many people, they can grasp the formal design with minimal effort, and are thereby free to luxuriate in the beautiful melodies. The orchestration is great, by the way; rich but non-intrusive, luminous and vivid.

If I say I don’t perceive any particular inner necessity in this piece, what does that mean? If I think the piece is “irrelevant” what does that mean? What piece in all the musical literature needs to exist? Is my response infected with what Taruskin calls the (dying) idealogy of German Romanticism? I guess so, but to quote Martin Luther, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

A couple notes on the piece: apparently the hot-shot violinist who had the piece commissioned for him didn’t like it, for whatever reason, and never performed it.  What an idiot. He plays junk by Wienawski and Sarasate and won’t play this piece, which just about screams, “I am going to be one of the most popular violin concertos in history, and I will make your career.” Dumb, dumb Dexter. The finale is a problem. No, not because it’s in a different style than the first two movements (the finale is a toccata like perpetuum mobile).  I laughed out loud when the liner notes said the finale was in “a harder edged, uncompromising style”-it is just as simple and accessible as the first two movements. Also risible was one of Barber’s biographers saying that “Barber grew impatient with self imposed restrictions” in the first two movements.  The finale is a problem because the work doesn’t feel like it is over when in fact it is over. Barber wanted to end with excitement, when in fact the piece ought to have ended elegiacally. Barber had problems with finales, generally.

Listening to this piece was a chore for me. It felt like a guy seeing an old girlfriend he used to find attractive walking down the street and realizing that he no longer finds her attractive, although everybody else continues to find her attractive. And I sacrificed something by going to bat for this literature in my conservatory days, and it feels like it all went for nought. Oh, well. I solaced myself by listening to another conservative concerto from roughly the same time period, Hindemith’s magnificently quirky viola concerto, weirdly called “Der Schwanendreher” that I enjoyed, let me tell you.

Barber concertos for violin, piano and cello, conducted by Leonard Slatkin with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Soloists: Kyoko Takezawa (violin concerto), John Browning (piano), Steven Isserlis (cello).