Lushly Romantic, nostalgic, and autumnal, Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto, Op. 22 has, in recent years, begun to emerge from the shadows of obscurity.
Completed in November of 1945, around the time of Barber’s discharge from wartime service in the United States Air Force, it is the second of the composer’s three concerti, bookended by the Violin Concerto (1939) and Piano Concerto (1962). The work’s neglect has been attributed to its extreme technical demands. (The cellist Leonard Rose once singled it out as the hardest concerto he had ever played). Additionally, in the second half of the twentieth century, Barber’s distinct brand of American Neo-Romanticism fell out of favor in the wake of the avant-garde.
It was Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who commissioned Barber to write the Cello Concerto for Raya Garbousova, a Russian cellist who emigrated to the United States in 1939. The piece earned the composer the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award in 1947.
The Cello Concerto, with its classical “fast-slow-fast” movement structure, is rooted, unabashedly, in tradition. In a review following the premiere, the critic/composer, Virgil Thomson, wrote, “The working up of [its ideas] into a richly romantic, well-sustained structure is musical, masterful, thoughtful, and not without a certain Brahms-like grandeur.”
In the music of Brahms, vast musical edifices develop organically from the smallest motivic cells. Similarly, the Concerto’s opening bars provide motivic seeds out of which the entire first movement (Allegro moderato) develops. The second movement (Andante sostenuto) is a lamenting siciliano. Containing thematic echoes of the previous movement, it begins with a sensuous duet between the solo cello and oboe. Soon, other instrumental voices join in the intimate musical conversation. The final movement (Molto allegro e appassionato) is a tense and edgily irregular dance. The second theme takes on a monumental scale, rising in intensity over an ominous passacaglia.
I will stop there, and allow the music to speak for itself. When Samuel Barber was asked for a program note for a performance in 1950, he upheld adamantly “the wishes of the composer that no analysis be printed.” On another occasion, Barber stated that the Concerto stands on “its own musical terms, which do not call for verbal description or analysis.”
Five Great Recordings
- Barber: Cello Concerto, Op. 22, Wendy Warner, Marin Alsop, Royal Scottish National Orchestra Amazon
- Yo-Yo Ma with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
- Steven Isserlis with Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra
- Christian Poltéra with Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
- Zara Nelsova with Samuel Barber and The New Symphony Orchestra Of London (the first recording of the piece)
Featured Image: “Railroad Sunset” (1929), Edward Hopper