Samuel Barber (1910-1981): Concerto for Violin, Op. 14 (1939), First movement
World Premiere (public): 2/7/1941, Philadelphia Orchestra, Albert Spalding as violin soloist,
Eugene Ormandy, cond.
Barber’s sole violin concerto had somewhat of a tortured beginning. Commissioned by Philadelphia businessman-philanthropist Samuel Simeon Fels for his ward, Iso Briselli, who graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in 1934 (same year as Barber), the concerto went from highly favored (first two movements) to disappointment (third). Along the way, Briselli, who initially liked the first two movements, was being influenced by his violin coach, who was highly critical of them, insisting they needed “surgical operation” to save the work. Briselli was hoping for a finale with ample opportunity for virtuosic display but was disappointed and felt it was too lightweight and too short; this dampened his enthusiasm for the concerto as a whole. So he and Barber amicably parted ways; despite the cancelled commission, the two remained friends.
Meanwhile, Barber had a Curtis student, Herbert Baumel, play through the finale to ensure its “playability.” Passing that test eventually led to a private performance of the entire work, with Baumel and the Curtis Institute Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner in early 1940. That came to the attention of Eugene Ormandy, who scheduled its official premiere, with Albert Spalding (1888-1953), nephew of Hall-of-Fame pitcher/manager/executive Albert G. Spalding (co-founder of the National League), as soloist. A further performance at Carnegie Hall (2/11) with the same forces solidified the concerto’s place in the standard contemporary repertoire.
Barber described the first (Allegro molto moderato) movement, which begins without an orchestral introduction, as having “more the character of a sonata than concerto form.”
Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849): Concerto No. 1 in E Minor for Piano, Op. 11 (1830), First movement
World Premiere: 10/11/1830, Warszawa (Warsaw), the composer as piano soloist,
Carlo Evasio Soliva, cond.
This concerto is actually the second of two but published before his actual first concerto (in F minor, Op. 21). This was due to a delay writing out the orchestral parts of the F-minor concerto (Chopin never was comfortable with any instrument outside of the piano). He premiered the E-minor concerto on his final Warsaw concert before leaving the Polish capital (and Poland) forever. The reason for his departure: Polish audiences were bored with Chopin, who was “passé” at the ripe old age of 20! So he decided to try his luck abroad, where he had found a wonderful haven in Paris. While he always intended to return to his native Poland, it wasn’t to be, as tuberculosis cut short his life. The worsening political situation in Poland didn’t help matters, either.
The E-minor is dedicated to Friedrich Kalkbrenner (1785-1849), composer-pianist-teacher, whose vanity (anecdotes abound about that) outshone his musical and business talents (both of which he had in abundance). Chopin made arrangements of this concerto for piano solo, piano duo, quartet for piano and strings, and quintet for piano and strings.
The Allegro maestoso opening movement, which lasts half the playing time of the entire concerto, features three themes – each first stated by the orchestra and then taken over by the piano – and unusual modulations (such as going to the parallel major, E, instead of the relative major, G). Complex harmonies more than make up for a rather dry orchestral accompaniment – again, proof that as long as the focus is on the piano, there’s no greater master than Chopin.
Iulii Konius “Julius Conus” (1869-1942): Concerto in E minor for Violin, Op. 1 (1896?), First movement
World Premiere: 1898, the composer as violin soloist (some sources credit Ivan Galamian)
Conus came from a family of French musicians who emigrated to Russia. His father was a pianist, and his two brothers (one pianist, the other theorist) and a son (pianist) were, like him, also composers, and another son married Serge Rachmaninov’s daughter. (Rachmaninov dedicated his two Morceaux de salon for Violin and Piano, Op. 6, to Conus.) He studied, then taught, at the Moscow Conservatory (Gold Medal winner) and also taught at the Russian Conservatoire in Paris, and wrote other, shorter pieces for his instrument, none of which are remembered today. In between, he lived and played in the U.S. (New York Symphony).
Dedicated to Jan/Jean Hrimaly (1844-1915), Conus’ former teacher at Moscow, this concerto was premiered by Conus near the close of the 19th century. It achieved a degree of notoriety when none other than the legendary Jascha Heifetz played it at Carnegie Hall and later (1952) recorded it. (Another early champion had been Fritz Kreisler.) Written in the “French” style of chromatic harmonies with a fair share of long-limbed melodies, the concerto is basically in one movement, although the opening (Allegro molto) is eventually “interrupted” by a second section(movement) before returning (as the “third” movement) for a recapitulation, cadenza and long coda to finish the concerto, which coincidentally is in the same key as the Mendelssohn concerto.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Concerto No. 3 in C Major for Piano, Op. 26 (1911,1913, 1916-1917, 1918, 1921), First movement
World Premiere: 12/16/1921, the composer as piano soloist, with the Chicago Symphony
Orchestra, Frederick Stock, conductor
The most popular of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos, the Third saw light of day in the U. S. as part of the composer’s American/Parisian period (1918-1922), when he toured and gave premieres, including of this concerto, a wonderful example of lyrical and structural balance, considering its sporadic beginnings (mostly in sketch form before 1921), taking up a discarded string quartet here and a shelved theme-and-variations passage there. Not immediately a hit, the concerto started experiencing success with conductor Serge Koussevitzky’s splashy 1922 rendition – ironic, considering this is a piano concerto, not an orchestral showpiece. But unlike Chopin, Prokofiev didn’t write a dry orchestral accompaniment but a part for orchestra that’s on the same plane as the piano solo.
The first movement begins Andante with a lyrical, soulful clarinet solo; before long, though, the work plunges forward (Allegro) into the piano’s entrance and the concerto is in full force with a lively dialogue between solo and orchestra (tutti), punctuated by typically Prokofievian dissonances and playful twists and turns of major-minor harmonies. Another interesting point: the percussion section includes a part for castanets – not to denote anything Spanish, but simply used for its own coloristic sake (a still-unusual occurrence back in the early 20th century). As with most great composers, Prokofiev was a man ahead of his time.
Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944): Concertino in D Major for Flute, Op. 107
(1902, originally with piano accompaniment; later, orchestrated)
World Premiere (orchestrated version): London, Marguerite de Forest Anderson as flute soloist
A pianist, Chaminade was that rarity, joining the likes of Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn and Amy Beach: a 19th-century (and 20th-century) woman composer. Or as fellow composer Ambroise Thomas pointed out: “She’s not a woman who composes but a composer who is a woman.” Her sister married fellow composer-pianist Moritz Moszkowski. At one time popular for her many piano pieces, today she is mostly ignored, save for her Flute Concertino, written for the 1902 Paris Conservatoire Flute Concours as an examination piece for the flute students at the Paris Conservatoire and, therefore, originally for flute and piano.
Rumor has it that she wrote it to be so difficult that a certain flute-playing lover who left her to marry another could never play it without extreme difficulty. Her recent marriage during the time she wrote this to a music publisher shows the story to be more urban legend than fact. (Also urban legend is the rumor that Conus wrote his concerto using material written by Rachmaninov to “help” the latter with writing a violin concerto! Never happened.) Besides, the fickle lover did manage to play it all the way through, it’s been reported. Dedicated to Paul Taffanel (1844-1908), Paris Conservatoire flute professor and founder of the French Flute style of playing, the Concertino is in one movement, in altered rondo form: A-B-codetta-C-(A)-cadenza-A-coda. A highly embellished solo part puts the flutist to work right from the beginning, and things proceed in lively or dramatic fashion to the end.