Dainty Flowers Amid the Cacti

Barber. Violin Concerto. Shostakovich. Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 99. London Symphony Orchestra. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg on violin. EMI Classics. 1992.

So when I set out to write this post uhhhhhhhhhh like months ago? Yeah months, the plan was to detail a sad/gallant tale of capitalism versus communism, of how strife produces beauty, to perhaps begin understanding why there are relatively few well-known American composers. And I guess it’s still about that, but after my customary bit of internet research, it also morphed into a little bit of a “trust, but verify” story, no matter how solid you may think your knowledge is.

The liner notes here detail how the Barber and Shostakovich works on this CD share the commonality of a “difficult birth, though the difficulties were as different in nature as the works themselves.” That bit about different difficulties has got to be one of the great liner note understatements of our time.

Shostakovich started writing his first violin concerto in the late 1940s. It was composed secretly v stol (“for the desk drawer”) as Stalin was in his second round of threatening to, you know, kill Shostakovich and all his ilk, since the composer was guilty of something called ‘formalism,’ which meant he wrote music that didn’t further the proletarian master plan. Or that Stalin didn’t like it today, even though he liked it yesterday. Or something. The work had its premiere after Stalin’s death.

While Shostakovich was under threat of death, Barber was living a pretty easy life by struggling composer standards. He was the nephew of a Metropolitan Opera singer. He knew he wanted to be all about music at an early age, and had his family’s support to do it. He won prizes. His Adagio for Strings, one of the most popular American works, was written in his 20s (take a moment to feel terrible about your own achievements at your current age and I will do the same). Barber composed some pieces – like the violin concerto on this CD – on commission for successful industrialists. For one work, commissioned via public subscription by Karl Haas and the Chamber Music Society of Detroit in 1954, patrons “who had contributed toward the project would stop Mr. Haas on the street and ask “How is ‘my’ piece coming along?,” according to one set of liner notes in dad’s collection. As Barber himself said: “I think I was very lucky always.”

Barber’s violin concerto on this CD was commissioned in the late 1930s for a fellow by the name of Iso Briselli, a schoolmate. As the liner notes tell it, Briselli was disappointed by the first two movements, and felt “they weren’t showy enough.” So Barber wrote a “strikingly brilliant finale” which Briselli found “unplayably difficult.” The sponsor as a result wanted his money back, and Barber arranged for a student violinist at his alma mater to play the part within a few hours of receiving the score, and ultimately took half his intended fee of $1,000 and retained the rights to the piece.

But as I started looking up various things, it turned  out the liner notes aren’t particularly right. To summarize a lot of tediously different points of view into what seems more or less likely to be the truth: 1) Briselli liked the first two movements fine but wanted something showier for the third 2) Briselli’s violin teacher meddled when he saw the first two movements and suggested that he himself would be well suited to revise them and to be consulted on the third, 3) Barber was like “no, I will not let you tell me how to compose,” 4) Either Briselli or his teacher didn’t like the third movement but not because they felt it unplayable – they just didn’t like it. The piano teacher wrote that the piece was “like placing a small basket of dainty flowers among tall cactus in a vast prairie,” and 5) All involved agreed that it would be the best course of action, no hard feelings old chap, if Barber kept the half the fee he’d already received and the rights to the work. (For more specifics, a pro-Briselli but generally balanced and well-documented account can be found here.)

All this petty stuff completely derailed this post for several months, but in the end, I don’t think it changes my thinking. It may even strengthen it, because the whole Barber to-do winds up being even pettier and more small-minded than the liner notes present it as. So not very strifey, this strife! All about money! No lasting consequences. And that, I think, transfers into the music, because I personally like the Shostakovich piece much better, perhaps because I can feel the stresses on him as he wrote it.

When I’m sitting on my couch late at night, room dark, reading something, this CD on the stereo in the background – the Barber slides comfortably, harmoniously by, yes, even the contentious third movement. It’s not really going anywhere, although it’s doing it very pleasantly. The Shostakovich will not let itself be background music. It has places to be – it is standing in front of a distorted mirror in a carnival funhouse, it is going to the circus, it is joining a dance of dervishes, it is stomping along in a funeral march, it is the first leaf of autumn swirling along the sidewalk – and it is taking you with it, whether or not they are nice places to go.

Also in dad’s collection:

Barber. Symphony No. 1. Piano Concerto. John Browning. Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Leonard Slatkin. BMG Classics. 1991.

Barber. Prayers of Kierkegaard. Vaughan Williams. Dona Nobis Pacem. Bartok. Cantata Profana. Robert Shaw. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Telarc. 198

Barber. Summer Music. Beach. Pastorale. And other American works performed by the Reykjavik Wind Quintet. Chandos Records. 1993.

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