Barber’s Cello Concerto, Op.22 (the story behind)

Barber’s Cello Concerto, Op.22 (the story behind)

Samuel Barber Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 22

1. Allegro moderato 2. Andante sostenuto 3. Molto allegro e appassionato

Christine Lamprea, cello NEC Philharmonia w/ Hugh Wolff conducting April 18, 2012, Jordan Hall

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Although not so collaborative as theater or film, music is surely a collaborative art. At the heart of it is the partnership between composer and performer. If an orchestra is involved, this collaboration is multiplied by the conductor and all the musicians.

Then there is the matter of patronage — an alliance of audience and art. Sometimes all of these relationships operate simultaneously to give the world a marvelous new musical work. That was the case with the Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra by Samuel Barber.
At the center of the collaboration stood Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951), conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. During the war years of the 1940s, he had been encouraging the work of cellist Raya Garbousova, and he felt that premiering a work by a major composer would enhance her career greatly. She agreed.

Koussevitzky approached Barber about the project and obtained a commitment for the $1,000 fee from John and Anne Brown of Providence, Rhode Island. Thus, by the end of 1944, a commission was put into motion in one of the great collaborations in American music.
The composer and artist worked closely. On the models of Brahms-Joachim, Tchaikovsky-Fitzhagen, and Stravinsky-Dushkin, Barber and Garbousova often consulted on technical passages to eliminate awkwardness and make them thoroughly idiomatic. Work went slowly at first during the early months of 1945.

However, with spring and summer, progress on the concerto moved along well, so that by late September, the music was essentially finished and only in need of orchestration. Garbousova worked hard to learn this challenging music, but master it she did, and gave a brilliant premiere in April 1946 with Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony.
Barber builds the first movement of the concerto mainly out of three themes. Two of these are strongly rhythmic, the second of which concentrates on only a few notes. (Thus, Barber anticipated the later work of Stravinsky and that of the post-modern “minimalists.”) The third main idea is a broadly lyrical theme.

We hear all of these before the soloist enters, and they become the raw material for the cello to work out. In fact, the developmental alternations and combinations of these generates the tension between soloist and orchestra so necessary to the music’s fabric. The masterful solo cadenza leads to a final reprise of the basic ideas.

Gently rocking siciliano rhythms form the backdrop of the middle movement. The ongoing cantilena of the cello is echoed in the oboe and other instruments. Barber freely develops and comments on this melody in spinning out the rest of the movement.
Energetic, yet always under control, the music of the third movement now gives the cellist a full palette of material, both technical and expressive. Certain passages verge on atonality, again creating tension to be worked out between soloist and orchestra. The final allegro section is a mixture of perpetual motion rhythm and free virtuosity. Flickering references to the first movement also appear, but then disappear in the forcible drive to the finish.

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Samuel Barber

Samuel Osmond Barber (West Chester, Pennsylvania, March 9, 1910-New York, January 23, 1981) was an American composer of chamber and orchestral music.

Considered a child prodigy, he began playing the piano at the age of six and composing at the age of seven. He studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (1924-1932), where he studied piano with Isabelle Vengerova, singing with Emilio de Gogorza, and composition with Rosario Scalero.1.

Some notable companions at Curtis were Leonard Bernstein and Gian Carlo Menotti, who became his life partner for more than 40 years (1928-1970). They lived in Capricorn, a house north of New York City, where they used to throw parties with academic and musical luminaries. Menotti was the one who wrote the libretto for Barber’s most famous opera, Vanessa, premiered in 1958 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. When the relationship ended in 1970, they remained close friends until Barber’s death from cancer in 1981.

In 1935, he was awarded the Student Pulitzer Prize and the American Academy Prize in Rome.1 In that same year he entered the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The following year he met Arturo Toscanini in Rome and also wrote his String Quartet in B minor, whose second movement —at Arturo Toscanini’s suggestion— he arranged for string orchestra, giving it the title of Adagio for Strings (Adagio for Strings) and, later, for mixed choir as Agnus Dei.

These melancholic pieces are undoubtedly his most famous works. Later, in 1938, Toscanini himself conducted his First Essay for Orchestra and the famous Adagio for Strings in New York. From 1939 to 1942 he taught orchestration at the Curtis Institute; but he was called by the air force, which commissioned his Second Symphony .1 In 1958 his first opera, Vanessa, was performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

His success led to the commission of a second lyrical work, Anthony and Cleopatra, premiered in September 1966 on the occasion of the inauguration of the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.2 His vocal work has been esteemed above all. He died of cancer in New York in 1981.

Barber’s music is elegiac, lyrical and refined. Without ever leaving the realm of tonality, she uses a dissonant language, polytonal at times. His orchestration, constantly poetic, is characterized by making the instruments sing.1

He tried to avoid the experimentalism of other American composers of his generation, preferring until near the end of his life to stick to relatively traditional musical forms and harmonies. Most of his work is exuberantly melodic and has been described as neo-romantic, although in some of his later work, particularly the Third Essay for Orchestra and the Dance of Vengeance from Medea, he displays masterful use of percussion. , a greater avant-garde and neo-Stravinskian effects.

His songs, accompanied by piano or orchestra, are among the most popular in the classical repertoire of the 20th century. These include a series on texts by Matthew Arnold (Dover Beach), originally written for string quartet and baritone; the Hermit Songs, inspired by anonymous Irish texts from the 8th to 13th centuries; and Knoxville: Summer of 1915, written for soprano Eleanor Steber and based on the introduction to A Death in the Family, a 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical text by James Agee.

Barber possessed a remarkable baritone voice and for a time considered becoming a professional singer. He left behind a few recordings, including one of his own Dover Beach.

His Piano Sonata (1949), a composition commissioned by Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin, was first performed by Vladimir Horowitz, becoming the first major American work for piano premiered by an internationally renowned pianist.

Barber also composed several operas; Vanessa, according to the libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It achieved both critical and public success, and Barber won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1958. Its premiere in Europe was coldly received, which is why it is currently little represented in the Old Continent, although it continues to be popular in the US. USA

Barber produced several concertos for solo instruments and orchestra: one for violin (completed 1939), one for cello, a third for piano, and one for flute (an arrangement of the earlier violin concerto). The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was written for and premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center by pianist John Browning on September 24, 1962, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He was awarded the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for it.

Barber also wrote in the early sixties a virtuoso work for organ and orchestra, the Toccata festiva, for the famous organist E. Power Biggs. The New York Philharmonic also commissioned an oboe concerto from him, of which he was only able to compose its central slow movement before his death.

Among his purely orchestral works are his two symphonies of 1936 and 1944, the overture The School of Scandal (1932), three essays for orchestra (1938, 1942 and 1978), as well as Fadograph on a Yestern Scene (1973). .

He also composed large-scale choral works, such as the Prayers of Kierkegaard (1954) and The lovers (1971). Prayers of Kierkegaard is based on the writings of the Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

In addition to the aforementioned sonata, his piano repertoire includes Excursions, Three sketches, Souvenirs and various other simple pieces.

Although Barber was never a prolific composer, he composed much less music in the wake of the failure of his opera Antony and Cleopatra. It had a libretto written by film and opera director Franco Zeffirelli and had been commissioned for the 1966 opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House. The opera was more favorably received in 1975 when it was performed on the more intimate stage of the Juilliard School with the collaboration and stage direction of Gian Carlo Menotti.

Notable compositions
Main article: List of compositions by Samuel Barber

Dover Beach (medium voice and string quartet) (Op. 3, 1931)
The School for Scandal (overture) (Op. 5, 1931)
Cello Sonata (Op. 6, 1932)
Music for a Scene from Shelley (Op. 7, 1933)
(First) Symphony in One Movement (Op. 9, 1936)
Adagio for Strings (1936 arr. of second movement of the String Quartet, Op. 11, 1936)
Essay for Orchestra (Op. 12, 1938)
Violin Concerto (Op. 14, 1939)
Reincarnations for mixed chorus, (Op. 16, 1939–1940); words by Antoine Ó Raifteiri in translation by James Stephens
Second Essay for Orchestra (Op. 17, 1942)
Excursions (Op. 20, 1942–44)
Capricorn Concerto (Op. 21, 1944)
Cello Concerto (Op. 22, 1945)
Medea (ballet) (Op. 23, 1946)
Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (soprano and orchestra) (Op. 24, 1948)
Sonata for Piano (Op. 26, 1949)
Hermit Songs (Op. 29, 1953)
Prayers of Kierkegaard (soprano, choir and orchestra) (Op. 30, 1954)
Summer Music for Wind Quintet (Op. 31, 1956)
Vanessa (opera) (Op. 32, 1957)
Nocturne (Homage to John Field) (piano) (Op. 33, 1959)
A Hand of Bridge (chamber opera) (Op. 35, 1959)
Toccata Festiva (organ and orchestra) (Op. 36, 1960)
Piano Concerto (Op. 38, 1962)
Antony and Cleopatra (Op. 40, opera, 1966, rev. 1974)
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