Primary source material uncovered in 2010 pertaining to the Barber violin concerto adds significantly to our knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the concerto's commission. Correspondence from the Samuel Simeon Fels Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania refutes the often quoted Nathan Broder biography of Barber that Iso Briselli, the violinist for whom the work was written, rejected it because he found the third movement too difficult. Personal letters of Samuel Barber, Samuel Fels and Albert Meiff (Briselli's violin coach) dispel all the myths that have appeared over the years about the concerto, and should be of special interest to program annotators.
The narrative below addresses the facts and fiction surrounding the creation of one of the most interesting and controversial violin concertos of the twentieth century. Based on thorough research, scholarly publications, correspondence and interviews, the true story of the Barber violin concerto can now be told:
In May of 1939, Philadelphia industrialist/philanthropist, Samuel S. Fels, asked Samuel Barber to compose a piece for violin and orchestra for his ward, Iso Briselli. Barber accepted asking $1000--half up front and the remainder upon completion. The violinist intended to premier it the coming January with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Barber gave Briselli the first two movements in the middle of October and Briselli was pleased. However, when Briselli received the third movement in late November, he was disappointed, feeling it was not substantial enough. Briselli suggested it be rewritten, not for difficulty reasons as falsely reported, but because of content. However, Barber declined. Barber and Briselli mutually decided to abandon the project with no hard feelings on either side. Fels permitted Barber to keep the $500 down payment; the $500 balance was not paid. Albert Spalding premiered it in February 1941 with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. A detailed account of the commission's genesis is set forth below.
Isaak Briselli was born in 1912 in Odessa, Russia (now Ukraine). At age 3 he asked his father, a doctor and amateur musician, to give him violin lessons. By age 7 he was accepted into the Stolyarsky Conservatory of Music, one of the most prestigious institutions of its kind in Russia. He was instructed by the highest caliber violin teachers, including Pyotr Stolyarsky himself. Among the older students who studied there were Nathan Milstein and David Oistrakh.
As the Russian Revolution spread, life became extremely dangerous, especially for Jews and those labeled "intelligentsia." After a failed attempt to escape, resulting in the arrest of the entire family, the Brisellis finally secured official permission to leave. They settled in Germany in 1922 where Isaak continued his musical studies with the renowned violinist and teacher, Carl Flesch. It was he who suggested Briselli change his first name from Isaak (always a Jewish name on the continent) to Iso because of increased anti-Semitism. When Dr. Flesch accepted the position to head the violin department at the newly founded Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, he thought so much of Briselli's talent that he brought the 12-year-old with him, the only student so honored. Dr. and Mrs. Flesch, along with young Iso, arrived in the USA at the end of December, 1924.
Arrangements were made for Briselli to live in Philadelphia and be cared for by the well-known industrialist/philanthropist, Samuel S. Fels (Fels Naptha Soap) and his wife Jennie, both classical music devotees. [Mr. Fels sat on the Philadelphia Orchestra board and Mrs. Fels was a founding board member of the Curtis Institute of Music.] The boy's parents and sister came over later and settled in New York. [Contrary to some sources, Briselli was never legally adopted by the Felses; they acted as his surrogate parents and sponsors.] After Flesch's departure from Curtis in 1928, Briselli's teachers included Leopold Auer, Efrem Zimbalist, Lea Luboshutz and Albert Meiff.
Iso Briselli officially debuted as soloist in 1926 at age 14 with The Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Rodzinski performing the first Paganini violin concerto. A year later, he repeated his performance under Leopold Stokowski, who presented him with a personally inscribed gold watch to mark the occasion. Briselli's repertoire included all the major violin concertos as well as many difficult bravura pieces by such composers as Sarasate, Wieniawski, Ernst, Vieuxtemps, and Ysaye. He toured extensively as a concert soloist in the late 1930's and early 1940's receiving reviews that consistently praised his superb technique, musicianship and virtuosity.
Iso Briselli and Samuel Barber were members of the first class to matriculate at the Curtis Institute of Music. Barber entered in the fall of 1924, and Briselli in early January, 1925. They both finished their studies at the same time--in May of 1933, although they didn't receive their diplomas until the following year at Curtis's first commencement ceremony.
By 1939, Barber was garnering recognition as an important young composer, while Briselli (two years younger) was beginning to establish a solo career for himself. In Briselli's recollection, it was Gama Gilbert--an old Curtis classmate and a close friend of each--who thought a commission (Barber's first major one) would be a good move for both violinist and composer in furthering their careers. The idea was presented to Mr. Fels. However, in a 2005 interview, cellist Orlando Cole maintained that the idea for the commission originated with Max Aronoff, violist of the Curtis String Quartet. (See "The 2005 Cole Interview" below.)
On an evening at the very beginning of May 1939, Mr. and Mrs. Fels met personally with Barber to discuss the possibility of his writing a work for Briselli, such as a fantasy or concertino for violin and orchestra. Fels asked Barber to put in writing his expectations should he accept the commission. In a follow-up handwritten letter to Fels dated May 4th [Page 2], Barber says "I should be glad to write a piece for violin and orchestra of about 15 minutes duration and give Iso the sole playing rights for one year after completion of the score." Barber and his publisher would "waive all performance fees for five pairs of concerts," after which, "Iso would have to pay the usual small performance fee" charged by his publisher, G. Schirmer, Inc. Barber said he would want $1000 for composing the piece plus an additional amount of "not less than $100 and not more than $200" for the copying of the orchestral parts and score. Barber continues that "I talked with Iso by phone yesterday, and he agreed that October 1st is time enough for him to receive the completed work." Barber asked, provided the terms were agreeable to Fels, if it "would be possible for me to have one-half of my fee [$500] at present, and the remainder upon completion of the completed score in October: that is, I believe, the usual procedure for a commissioned work." Barber ends his letter by saying how flattered he was that Fels and Iso asked for a work of his, and how much he enjoyed the past evening.
In a letter of May 23rd, Fels responded favorably to Barber's proposal but stipulated that that the completed work be delivered not later than October 1st and that Briselli have the sole playing rights extended until January 1st, 1941. Fels also suggested that the piece be longer, rather than shorter in length. [Briselli later explained that $1,000 being a sizable sum of money for a young composer at that time, he and Fels felt comfortable in asking for a lengthier three-movement work akin to other violin concertos in Briselli's repertoire.] Fels included with his letter a $500 check dated May 23rd (half of the agreed upon fee) with the balance to be "turned over upon completion of the finished score in October of this year." Fels also indicated that Barber and Briselli understood that the commission had a specific purpose and that it would be wise if they collaborated as the piece progressed. [The "purpose" was its intended premier by the Philadelphia Orchestra the coming January.] Fels further commented that he looked forward to a successful outcome adding to both Barber's and Briselli's reputations.
Barber started working on the first two movements in Switzerland during the summer of 1939. It progressed slowly, but he hoped to complete the concerto in the early fall to meet the October 1st deadline. His plans were interrupted, however, due to the impending war--all Americans were warned to leave Europe. In late August he went to Paris and took a ship back to the U.S. in early September. After spending a short time with his family in West Chester, Pennsylvania, he went to the Pocono Mountains to continue working on the concerto.
When he delivered the first two movements to Briselli in mid-October (although later than anticipated), Briselli received them with great enthusiasm. He believed they were beautiful and eagerly awaited the finale. He suggested to Barber that when writing the last movement, he might include more of the virtuosic side of the violin's capabilities. Barber evidently took this to heart and planned to provide a finale with "ample opportunity to display the artist's technical powers" (Heyman/Broder).
However, in mid-November, things began to go awry. Briselli showed the two completed movements he was learning to his violin coach in New York, Albert Meiff, who was immediately critical of the work from a violinistic standpoint. Briselli did not concur. Nevertheless, Meiff, who enjoyed the confidence of Fels, and believing he was protecting Briselli's interests, took it upon himself to write Fels a letter (November 13th) stating why the violin part had to undergo a "surgical operation" by a "specialist" such as himself. He said "The technical embellishments are very far from the requirements of a modern violinist..." and if Briselli performed the work as written, it would severely hurt his reputation. Meiff said he was rewriting the violin part to make it more acceptable and that it was necessary that he, Briselli and Barber get together for a "special meeting" to discuss his changes. [There is no evidence that a meeting ever took place.] Meiff added that it was indeed fortunate that the third movement "the most fast and vigorous movement" was not yet completed, as it "must be written with a knowledge of the instrument. I am afraid that he will not succeed in doing it alone." Meiff points to other successful past collaborations between violinists and composers and the necessity of doing so. He confidently tells Fels that "I am quite certain I am capable of protecting Iso's performance, from the purely violinistic viewpoint." It is also clear from his letter that Meiff was pressing Briselli hard to accept his expert point of view and, "after a long debate," believed that he succeeded.
On November 22nd, 1939, a concerned Fels responds to Meiff's letter stating that Briselli ought to be prepared to play another work with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the event Barber's piece was not ready in time. Fels still hopes the Barber can be performed as scheduled, for he thinks it has already been listed for performance. He suggests that if it can't be premiered in January, it should be "played somewhere else at a little later time when it is more perfect."
Briselli was disappointed when he received the third movement from Barber in late November. He had expected a finale comparable in substance and quality to the first two movements, and felt it was too lightweight by comparison. He told Barber that it did not have a sense of belonging; it seemed musically unrelated to the first two movements, and he thought it was insufficient in compositional form or development to stand as the finale of a major work. It was important to Briselli that the commission be as substantial as the other major concertos in his repertoire that he was offering for prospective orchestra engagements.
Briselli asked Barber if he would rewrite the finale; he could premier it at a later date to give Barber more time if needed. He suggested possible ways in which the movement could be deepened or expanded, perhaps even changing its form altogether such as a sonata rondo; that perhaps he might expand the third movement while possibly retaining the moto perpetuo as the middle section and giving it more clearly defined structural parameters. Briselli felt that only then would it be a complete, first-class concerto.
Despite Briselli's prodding, Barber was dismissive of his suggestions and declined to alter it. Briselli conjectured that perhaps Barber couldn't give it more time as he was already at work on other commissions. But for whatever reasons, this was a big disappointment for Briselli. He believed that with a substantial third movement, the work could stand as a great American violin concerto. Briselli decided to hold his ground regarding the finale and chose to forgo the concerto's premier and relinquish his claim on it. [From the time of its premier in 1941 to the present, critics remain divided as to the finale's musical value and effectiveness. Although Barber continued to tinker with the concerto until making his final edits in 1948, the finale nevertheless remained a four-minute perpetual motion movement.]
On December 14th, Barber wrote Fels[Page 2] that, as he probably already knew, Briselli had decided the piece was "not exactly what he wanted, and has given it back to me." Barber expressed concern about the disposition of the $500 advance that he had already spent and wanted to be sure that Fels understood his side of the story. Barber explains why he was late in delivering the commission: the war outbreak and the subsequent illness of his father. He says he landed back in the US on September 1st and immediately "went to the mountains to work." [Barber is confused about the date. According to Barbara Heyman (his preeminent biographer), in late August of 1939, Barber cabled his parents that he would leave for the U.S. on September 1st. His sailing was cancelled at the last minute, however, and he departed on another boat the following day. Heyman also records a note from Barber that says: "To W. C. [West Chester, PA] for a few days, then to Pocono...to work on concertino for Briselli-from September 11-Oct 5."]
Barber said he was surprised to learn upon his return from Europe that "the first performance was already announced for January" without his being notified by Briselli or Ormandy. [This is hard to reconcile considering Fels' May 23rd letter to Barber asks that Briselli's sole performing rights be extended until January 1941 (a year after the premier), and that both he (Barber) and Briselli were aware of its intended purpose. Also, Barber knew Briselli and Fels wanted the music by October 1st to give Briselli time to learn it--presumably for the upcoming January performances. Barber was no doubt feeling pressure at that point because of the short amount of time remaining.]
At this juncture, the Barber and Briselli accounts differ somewhat; both are set forth here:
Barber continues that he gave Briselli "the completed first two movements (about 15 minutes of music)" in "the middle of October" and "he seemed disappointed that they were not of virtuoso character--a bit too easy." [Was Barber reacting to Meiff's criticism?] Briselli's account was that he liked them very much but suggested to Barber when writing the third movement, he might explore more of the virtuosic side of the violin's capabilities. Barber then says he asked Briselli "what type of brilliant technique best suited him; he told me he had no preference." Barber continues: "At that time, he did not apparently dislike the idea of a 'perpetual motion' for the last movement." Briselli, on his part, did not know specifically what Barber had in mind, but we certainly know Briselli's reaction after receiving it! [The words "seemed" and "apparently" were italicized by the editor to call attention to Barber's guarded verbalization.]
Barber says that he "worked very hard" on the last movement, finishing it "in far from ideal circumstances" (his father's illness), and sent the violin part to Briselli about two months before the intended premier. [This would mean Barber worked on the finale for a little over a month after submitting the first two movements.] Barber says that "It is difficult, but only lasts four minutes." [Barber never mentions Meiff's proposal that the three of them meet in regards to alterations of the violin part of the first two movements, or of Meiff's desire to "advise" Barber on the third movement while it was being written. Clearly, Barber did not solicit Meiff's input, as the violin part of the first two movements remained unchanged, and the last movement was delivered as a fait accompli.]
EDITOR'S NOTE: Barber's following statements conclusively refute the allegation set forth in Broder's book that Briselli declared the finale too difficult to play.
Barber then discloses to Fels that when he sent the finale to Briselli, "At the same time, I had a violinist from Curtis play it for me to see that it was practical and playable." (See "The Demonstration Myth" below.) [Barber evidently felt he needed another violinist's opinion about the third movement's technical demands before giving it to Briselli.] Barber then says "My friends heard and liked it, so did I. But Iso did not." The three reasons he gave for Briselli's rejection were (1) "he could not safely learn it for January"; (2) "it was not violinistic"; and (3) "it did not suit musically the other two movements, it seemed to him rather inconsequential. He wished another movement written."
As to the first point, although Briselli never specifically spoke of this, it is plausible. Memorizing the three movements and having it feel ready for a public performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra by January might well have caused him concern. After all, he had expected to get the completed work by October 1st to allow him adequate time to learn it. Point two: Briselli did mention during an interview that he found the finale somewhat unviolinistic, but certainly playable. But there is no quibbling about point number three; the Barber and Briselli statements are consistent. It was the principal reason why Briselli relinquished the commission, and he stated so in all of his interviews.
Barber continues "But I could not destroy a movement in which I have complete confidence, out of artistic sincerity to myself. So we decided to abandon the project, with no hard feelings on either side." He said he was "sorry not to have given Iso what he had hoped for." [Contemporaries confirmed that the two men did remain friends until Barber's death despite their disagreement on the concerto.]
Barber goes on to say that "While it was Iso's complete right not to accept a work he finds unsuitable," he (Barber) feels he does deserve to be paid something considering that he had worked four months entirely on the concerto and "has done his best in submitting a work for which he makes absolutely no apology." He appeals to Fels' "understanding and generosity" that he be allowed to keep the $500 advance, which he believes is standard practice "when a commissioned work is not accepted by the commissioner." [It is important to note here that Barber does not ask for the $500 still outstanding, but rather that he just be allowed to retain the $500 already paid--and already spent.]
The following day, December 15th, Fels responds to Barber's appeal and suggests "they should talk over the matter and decide what to do about it," and that "if you are thinking of coming over to Philadelphia in the next few days, [I] shall be glad to see you; or it is possible I will be in New York in the course of a week or so." Fels continues "In the meantime, do not do anything further in regard to the question as we can most likely settle it satisfactorily to both of us." Two days later on December 17th, Barber writes back a handwritten letter thanking Fels for his note and suggests the possibilities of where and when they might meet. He writes his phone number for Fels to contact him.
[Although we have no written record of their actual meeting, we can conclude that Fels let Barber keep the $500 advance but did not pay the $500 balance. Clearly, Fels does say in his December 15th letter to Barber that the matter would most likely be settled "satisfactorily" for both parties. Further, there is no record in Fels' check book that Barber returned the original $500, or that Fels paid Barber the $500 balance. Barber never asked nor expected that the balance be paid.]
Enter Mr. Meiff: On December 20th, in the first paragraph of a letter to Fels, he states that "I hope you have learned that Iso is not going to play the composition of Mr. Barber. My premonition about the third movement was correct, and the question is put aside until a more favorable moment will come and a more violinistic third movement will be written. It really was too big a risk to introduce the composition as it is. I'm glad Iso agrees with me on this matter." [Meiff implies that it was his determination with Briselli concurring. (Briselli never mentioned this in any interviews.) Meiff's statement also raises the specter that another third movement might yet be forthcoming.]
On December 24th, Fels writes a handwritten note to Meiff: "Regarding the composition of Mr. Barber, he is to call to see me about it in a day or two and therefore I would like to have from you a note giving the reasons why the composition was not a desirable one for Iso or any other violinist should [sic] play it before a discriminating audience." He continues: "I should like to understand the reasons for rejection so I can properly talk to Barber and shall not use your name if you do not wish it." Fels asks that he "send his reply by special delivery, please."
Meiff replies on December 26th[Page 2] with a detailed two-page letter outlining to Fels, "point by point," the many reasons why the piece is deficient--thus arming Fels with the information he needed to be able to speak intelligently to Barber. He explains it "hasn't got enough backbone-- not strong, not majestic--does not contain enough dramatic moments, all of which make for a successful performance." He says it not a piece for a great hall with a huge orchestra "...like placing a small basket of dainty flowers among tall cactus in a vast prairie"; he says it lacks an effective beginning and a typical violin technique. And specifically addressing the finale: "It was a dangerous thought from the very beginning, to make a perpetual motion movement ...without a breath of rest and without melodic parts...a risky tiresome ending...it was a wrong idea, and Mr. Barber should admit this." Meiff therefore felt it his duty "to advise Iso not to do it." On the positive side, he acknowledges that "...it has many beautiful parts" and that he has "personal admiration for the composer for himself personally and musically."
It is obvious, though, that 'Meiff was miffed' by Barber's not responding positively to his offer of "help without compensation before the third movement was begun....knowing he would not be able to undertake it alone. Brahms ran to Joachim each time and begged him to correct certain passages and even big parts. Barber should have done the same." He then tells Fels "I do think that it is a good idea on your part or of anyone else, to patronize and encourage any American composer to write a concerto for violin. But it looks as though it is not such an easy task." In a postscript, Meiff (responding to Fels query about using his name) says: "About mentioning my name, I do not feel that I should hide my views on this, and prefer to be frank; nevertheless I would not want the composer to feel that I had spoiled his chances; the composition in re-arranged form may have a future, in spite of the points brought out." [One wonders if Fels (or Barber) ever brought up Meiff's name in their meeting.] (This is the final piece of correspondence we have from the Fels papers concerning the commission.)
It is clear from the above that Briselli was under considerable pressure from Meiff not to premier the concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra, as written, for fear of hurting his career. There is a reasonable possibility, then, that Meiff's concerns weighed in on Briselli's decision not to go forward. Interestingly, neither Barber nor Briselli ever mentioned Meiff's significant self-imposed role in the entire affair, and one wonders why? Perhaps Barber didn't take Meiff seriously, and perhaps Briselli didn't want it to appear that he was influenced by anyone else. Who is to say? But most importantly, there is never any assertion by Briselli or contention by Barber that Briselli found the third movement too difficult to play. As to the upcoming performances, in place of the Barber, Briselli substituted the Dvorak violin concerto. He performed it with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on January 19th and 20th, 1940, on their subscription series at the Academy of Music (see Musical America review).
According to Barbara Heyman, after Briselli gave Barber back the concerto, Barber continued to work on it. [Heyman noted that from then on, the composer humorously referred to the work as his concerto del sapone or "soap concerto" (a word-play on "soap opera" and Fels Naptha Soap) due to the dramatic course it had taken.] In early 1940 there was a private performance by violinist Herbert Baumel with the Curtis orchestra under Fritz Reiner, and a run-through in March at Gama Gilbert's New York apartment by violinist Oscar Shumsky with Barber at the piano. In August of 1940 Barber showed the work to American violinist, Albert Spalding, who took to it immediately. The premier was announced for February of 1941 with Spalding and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. In preparation for the premier, Baumel played through the work with Ormandy and the Orchestra as a stand-in. (See Barbara Heyman's biography for a full account of the premier.)
The Nathan Broder Fiction
Following the concerto's public debut by Albert Spalding and the Philadelphia Orchestra on February 7th and 8th, 1941 (with repeat concerts in New York and Washington D.C.), there were some performances given in the US, England and Germany over the next few years; but would take many more years for the work to find its way into the standard violin repertoire and enjoy the broad appeal it has today. Whenever it was played, however, it needed program notes. Although Barber wrote notes for the first performance, they focused on the music itself, not on the origin of the commission. In 1954, Nathan Broder published a short biography of Barber that became the leading source for program material. It was the only source until Barbara Heyman's book appeared in 1992. In it, Broder claims that when Briselli received the first two movements, he complained they were "too simple and not brilliant enough for a concerto." Barber then promises a finale that would provide him "ample opportunity to display his technical powers." Broder then says that when Briselli received it, "he declared it too difficult," and the sponsor "demanded his money back." Broder continues that Barber, already having spent the commission fee, called in Oscar Shumsky to play it for Fels and Briselli "to prove that the finale was not unplayable." Broder finishes by asserting that the composer "was obliged to return half the fee" and that Briselli had to "relinquish his right to the first public performances."
Broder's account is rife with factual errors: (1) Briselli was indeed enthusiastic about the first two movements; (2) Briselli did not consider the finale too difficult; (3) Fels and Briselli did not participate in the "test"; (4) Shumsky was not the "test" violinist; (5) Fels did not pay Barber his full fee upfront; (6) Fels did not demand his money back; (7) Barber did not return half his fee; (8) Briselli did not have to give up the premier. Yet despite all this misinformation, the Broder account persisted without challenge until Dr. Heyman's biography appeared in 1992.
Having the benefit now of Barber's correspondence, the question is why would he allow so many errors concerning the commission to be published in Broder's book? Did Barber's recollection of events become hazy over time (the commission was 15 years earlier)? This seems doubtful knowing of Barber's generally reliable memory and record keeping. Did Barber hold a grudge? Considering that Barber and Briselli remained on cordial terms, the copious inaccuracies casting Briselli in such an unfavorable light do not seem like something Barber would have condoned. The most likely answer is that either Barber did not review Broder's account before the book was published, or he was "overruled" by Schirmer and Broder. We can only conjecture [Barbara Heyman recently uncovered new information regarding this which is currently being reviewed]; but one thing is apparent--there was a clear-cut incentive by Schirmer/Broder to put their own spin on the commission controversy--and that was for business reasons.
One must keep in mind Broder's position as manager of the publications department at G. Schirmer, Inc. He wrote the biography of Barber as a means of promoting and marketing Barber's music. In light of this, it certainly wasn't in Schirmer's best interest for Broder to have to write that the commission was rejected on musical grounds. Broder needed to present an acceptable face-saving story explaining why the artist, for whom the work was written, did not premier it, and to make the piece's attraction more scintillating. What better way to promote the concerto to violinists than with a "juicy" story attached. Had Broder wanted the correct information, it was his to be had. We know with certainty that Broder never contacted Briselli to verify the facts before publishing his book, even though Briselli was easily reachable.
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. Mrs. Briselli states she never heard him mention it again until...(see below). Hindsight proves how flawed his reasoning turned out to be. He failed to imagine that Mr. Broder's calumny would reach so far into the future and become the most commonly cited history for critics and annotators.
As the popularity of the concerto grew in the 1990's, Briselli began to have second thoughts about his decision. Many leading violinists were now performing and recording it. Unfortunately, several annotators writing program/liner notes still referred to the Broder biography (and other sources quoting Broder) instead of the Heyman 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. Additional "facts" were commonly invented to further spice up the story and bolster the "prowess" of violinists performing the concerto--at Briselli's expense.
Briselli's friend, Marc Mostovoy, Founder and Music Director of Concerto Soloists Chamber Orchestra (now the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia) persistently pressed him to take action to counter the untruths being circulated so that history might judge him properly. Eventually, against his nature, Briselli relented; and albeit more than 50 years late, he embarked on an effort to correct the record. Hence, a firmly worded letter from Alan L. Spielman, Briselli's attorney in Philadelphia, was sent out across this country and abroad threatening legal action if the defamatory version of events were repeated. This met with a measure of success. Based on the evidence presented and their own investigations, orchestras, recording companies, presenting institutions and radio/TV stations agreed to revise their program/liner notes on the concerto to present a more accurate and balanced account of what had transpired. [It is regrettable that today, even with the benefit of Barber's correspondence, some annotators persist in including the Broder misinformation in their notes. Repeating Broder's false story is counterproductive, and only serves to reinforce a destructive myth best forgotten.]
The Demonstration Myth
Concerning the "demonstration" at the Curtis Institute of Music, it is clear from Barber's letter of December 14th[Page 2] to Fels what his intention was in regard to the third movement: Barber staged the test solely for his own self-assurance that what he was giving to Briselli was "practical and playable." It was not a demonstration to counter Briselli's supposed claim, as reported by Broder, that the third movement was too difficult. The test took place in the (former) studio of Josef Hofmann (he had left Curtis the previous year) right before the finale was given to Briselli.
In recounting the "demonstration" for a New York Times article (1980) and again for Barbara Heyman in 1984, violinist Herbert Baumel obviously misunderstood its purpose. Baumel says that in the autumn of 1939 while a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, he was recruited by faculty member, pianist Ralph Berkowitz, to learn a piece of music in two hours and play it "very fast" for a few people. The pencil manuscript given him was the unidentified violin part of a section of the concerto's third movement. After performing it successfully (Berkowitz accompanied) for Barber and his friends--Gian Carlo Menotti, Mary Bok and Edith Braun--Baumel reports that "The verdict was that Barber was to be paid the full commission and Briselli had to relinquish his right to the first performance of the work." (See Heyman biography for a detailed account.)
The question begs how a "verdict" could be handed down against Briselli when Barber's stated purpose of the test was simply to allay his own concern about the finale's playability before showing it to Briselli, and also considering that the "jury" had no standing to issue such a "verdict." Most likely, the answer lies with this scenario: After the successful rendering by Baumel, followed by the "bravos and the ritualistic tea and cookies" (Heyman), the "judges" concurred that if Briselli rejected the finale based on playability, it could now be proven otherwise. Furthermore, if Briselli was not able to play the finale, he ought to give up the premier, and Barber should be paid the full commission anyway, considering the time and effort he expended. But Baumel probably misunderstood their conversation. He mistakenly believed that Briselli had declared it "unplayable" whereas he (Baumel) was able to play it, thus saving Barber his reputation and full commission fee.
Unfortunately, Broder's fictitious account, together with Baumel's false perception, had the consequence of severely damaging Iso Briselli's reputation far into the future. Years later, when Baumel read Broder's book, he must have been quite taken aback that Broder identified the "jury" as being Briselli and Fels, and that Oscar Shumsky was the violinist, not he!
About Albert Meiff
Until now, the significant role played by Albert Meiff in the controversy has been unknown. Meiff was a Russian student of Leopold Auer at St. Petersburg in the early 1900s. He came to America, settled in New York, and became well-known as a violin pedagogue. He is mainly remembered for being the first teacher of Oscar Shumsky.
He began teaching at the Curtis Institute of Music in 1928-29 as "Violin Instructor of Students Majoring in Chamber Music and Orchestral Playing," and left there as a regular violin teacher at the conclusion of the 1931-32 school year. While at Curtis, Briselli took some lessons with Meiff. There seemed to be good chemistry, and after leaving the Institute, Briselli continued to coach with Meiff in New York until Briselli left the concert stage in the early forties. Meiff held Fels' confidence; his task was to mentor and to guide young Briselli's career. There is correspondence between Meiff and Fels dating from 1934 through 1941 that attests to their relationship. Some of the letters are quite amusing with Meiff always wanting higher fees, and Fels constantly arguing against it.
With Meiff being from the "old school," one could have predicted his negative reaction to the concerto--it being aesthetically and "violinistically" foreign to the well-known violin concertos he taught; being devoid of the obligatory cadenzas; the third movement being a four-minute perpetual motion rather than a more extended finale; but most importantly, not giving a full opportunity to display the wealth of violinistic possibilities he thought necessary to "show off" the young artist he was mentoring, and who was about to embark on a major career. Meiff, and therefore, Fels, believed that if Briselli premiered the concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra in its present form, he was courting disaster. Nevertheless, had Barber agreed to rewrite the third movement to mutual satisfaction, Briselli said he would have premiered it at a later date and added it to his repertoire.
The 2005 Cole Interview
In 2010, British composer, pianist and author, Peter Dickinson, came out with a book titled Samuel Barber Remembered: A Centenary Tribute. Included are interviews with a number of individuals who, over the years, interacted with Barber in various capacities. Among Dickinson's many subjects was cellist Orlando Cole who had a long and close association with Barber. In a 2005 interview with Cole, Dickinson asks "What happened about the Violin Concerto?" Cole's response was interesting. Among other things, he said that Samuel Fels "...asked the violist in my quartet, Max Aronoff, what he could do to stimulate Iso's career. Max said he should have a young composer write a concerto; there would be interest in hearing it and he could have the rights, and so on. Max suggested Sam Barber, and they engaged him." But in 1982, Briselli had told Barbara Heyman that he thought Gama Gilbert was the catalyst for the commission. Why the discrepancy?
In re-listening to the Briselli interview tape kindly provided by Dr. Heyman, it seems that Briselli, recollecting 43 years earlier, was not certain it was Gilbert's idea. Most likely, Cole's version is the correct one, especially considering Barber's and Fels' attentiveness to the performing rights issue as put forward by Aronoff. But whether it was Aronoff's or Gilbert's idea (or both—they also were colleagues), the important thing is that the commission came to fruition.
As to the rest of Cole's recollections about Briselli and the violin concerto, it is unfortunate that he parrots the Broder myth, demonstrating the pervasiveness of the tale that became part of everyone's consciousness. Cole further embellishes Broder's account by saying "I guess they went so far as to have a court session because Sam wanted to collect the commission."
Although Briselli played the concerto privately for himself and friends, his qualms regarding the violin concerto's third movement never changed. Briselli continued to practice the violin into his late 80s. He played chamber music frequently with friends (professionals and amateurs); provided inspiration and coaching to a host of young musicians; and devoted the rest of his long life, energy, and resources to the advancement of music and arts philanthropy in Philadelphia, his beloved adopted home. He was prevailed upon to make some very limited public performances in later years for a non-profit arts organization which were received with great enthusiasm. Iso Briselli died at age 92 in 2005.
Barber/Fels/Meiff Letters of 1939 (Collection: Historical Society of Pennsylvania)
May 4; Barber 2-page handwritten letter to Fels[Page 2]*
May 23; Fels 1-page typed letter to Barber* ($500 check enclosed)
November 13; Meiff 1-page typed letter to Fels* (lesson invoice attached)
November 22; Fels 1-page typed letter to Meiff
December 14; Barber 2-page typed letter to Fels with handwritten postscript[Page 2]*
December 15; Fels 1-page typed letter to Barber
December 17; Barber 1-page handwritten letter to Fels
December 20; Meiff 1-page typed letter to Fels
December 24; Fels handwritten note card to Meiff
December 26; Meiff 2-page typed letter to Fels[Page 2]*
*Letters shown on this website: by permission of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Samuel Simeon Fels Papers, Col. 1776
The Curtis Institute of Music Archives; Susannah Thurlow, Archivist
Heyman, B. B. (1992); Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music; Oxford University Press, New York
Broder, N. (1954); Samuel Barber; G. Schirmer, Inc., New York
Dickinson, P. (2010); Samuel Barber Remembered: A Centenary Tribute; University of Rochester Press; Rochester, New York
Wentzel, W. C. (2001); Samuel Barber: A Guide to Research; Routledge-Keegan-Hall, New York
Flesch, C (1958); The Memoirs of Carl Flesch; The McMillan Company, New York
Diehl, G. K. (November 1995); A Tale of Three Movements; Strad Magazine, London
Ericson, R. (June 29, 1980); Notes: American Conductors; New York Times
Live Interviews of Iso Briselli and other principals by Barbara Heyman, PhD; George Diehl, PhD; Marc Mostovoy; members of the Briselli family, and others