Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto: Straddling the Tonal Precipice

Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, Op. 38 is lushly cinematic. It is an exhilarating drama between two dueling titans—the brazen, summit-scaling solo piano and the twentieth century orchestra, with its vast sonic power. The Concerto’s expansive Neo-Romantic lines straddle the precipice between tonality and serialism. The music never loses its tonal bearings, yet it often ventures far into a tumultuous chromatic sea.

The legendary American music publisher G. Schirmer commissioned Barber to write the Piano Concerto to commemorate the centennial of the company’s founding. The work’s premiere on September 24, 1962 celebrated another momentous occasion: the opening of Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall) at New York’s Lincoln Center. Barber collaborated with the pianist, John Browning, who performed the premiere with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Browning found parts of the initial version of the final movement, completed fifteen days before the first performance, to be unplayable. After Vladimir Horowitz came to the same conclusion, Barber revised the technically demanding score.

The tempestuous first movement (Allegro appassionato) begins with a solo piano cadenza in which three themes are announced. The composer described the first as “declamatory” and the others “rhythmic.” The orchestra interrupts with a new theme which is sweeping, restless, and passionate. The music takes on symphonic dimensions as the initial motivic seeds are developed through adventurous contrapuntal variations. A poignant second theme emerges in the solo oboe. The musical conversation includes distant, nostalgic statements in the solo horn.

The second movement (Canzone: Moderato) is a dreamy song without words. The pentatonic melody is heard first in the flute, amid wispy, ephemeral lines in the harp and strings. Barber drew upon an Elegy for flute and piano which he wrote in 1959. The movement’s serenity is disrupted only by a chilling descending chromatic passage in the strings, which brings the movement to an unsettling conclusion.

The final movement (Allegro molto) evokes images of an ominous, nocturnal chase. Propelled by a nightmarish ostinato, it surges forward in a relentless and irregular 5/8 time. This five-part rondo includes lighter moments in which a series of instrumental voices including the solo clarinet, a trio of flutes, and muted trombones come out to play.

Recordings

Featured Image: “Lake George” (1922), Georgia O’Keeffe

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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