1910 — 1981
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra 1940
Samuel Barber was born in 1910 into a comfortable, educated and socially distinguished family that included an opera-singing aunt and a composing uncle. Samuel wrote his first composition at age 7 and his first opera at age 10. Well-trained in piano and organ technique, the 12-year-old filled a post as a church organist but was forced to resign because he refused to acknowledge fermatas (holds) in playing hymns. At 14 he entered the newly established Curtis Institute in Philadelphia where he majored in piano, voice and composition. Nine years later he graduated with honors. Mary Curtis Bok, (head of Curtis), G. Schirmer, Gian Carlo Menotti and Leonard Bernstein had already performed some of his compositions.
An introduction to Arturo Toscanini was a page-turning event; the young Barber was the first American composer to work alongside the great conductor. From then on the path was clear for international recognition and many commissions were offered by prominent artists, performers and ensembles, enabling Barber to sustain his livelihood by composing.
Barber died of cancer in 1981 while living abroad and was buried in the family plot in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Concerto for Violin, op.14, First Movement
This concerto begins immediately with the violin soloist strumming the first note and a single, uninterrupted phrase of 27 bars, right up to the point where a fresh theme by the clarinet makes its appearance with a perky, syncopated figure. The rhythm of this theme is known as a “Scotch Snap,” giving the impression of American jazz. Sometimes the composer burst forth in a somewhat belligerent manner but the two themes return with great warmth and lyricism before returning to the first theme. The movement ends with a brief clarinet recollection of the opening theme.
1906 — 1985
Concertino for Marimba and Orchestra 1940
Paul Creston was born Giuseppe Guttoveggio in New York City in 1906, son of immigrants from Sicily. As a child Creston visited Sicily where he was exposed to the folk songs and dances of Sicilian peasants and his love of music was awakened. He persuaded his parents to provide piano and organ lessons and soon surpassed the ability of his teachers. By age 14 he began to compose but dreams of a musical career were cut short at age 15 when he was forced to drop out of high school to help support his family. He still spent all his free time practicing the piano, studying theory, composition, music literature, and history, literature and philosophy. In order to stay awake he smoked ground coffee beans.
His nickname was “Cress,” derived from playing the part of Crespino in a school play, so he decided to “Americanize” his name and changed it to Paul Creston.
The school dropout’s diligence in the self-study of music paid off. At age 20 he was hired as a theater organist for silent movies and was appointed organist of St. Malachi’s Church in New York, a post he held for the next 33 years.
At age 34 Creston worked as musical director of several radio programs, including the Philco Hall of Fame and Storyland Theater. He reaped awards for work in radio and television and an Emmy citation for his score for the 1964 documentary, American Grain. He also wrote a number of books.
The self-made composer-writer-musician was diagnosed with cancer in 1983 and died in California in 1985.
Concertino for Marimba, First Movement
Creston often chose unusual instruments for his compositions — trombone, saxophone and marimba. This Concertino was thus designed to demonstrate the capabilities of the marimba as a solo instrument, and it emphasized song and dance rhythms. The First Movement is marked “Vigorous” and is based on two themes, one of which is strongly rhythmic while the other is very lyrical. An orchestra introduction precedes the solo.
1810 — 1856
Piano concerto in a minor, op. 54 1845
Robert Schumann, son of middle class parents, was a self-taught composer with no musicians in his family history. Yet he easily found his way around the piano keyboard and became an improviser with song material at his fingertips. By age 16 he had become a good pianist and self-taught composer and was placed with one of the foremost piano teachers of the time, Friedrich Wieck.
A long, troubled courtship of Wieck’s daughter Clara led to a successful marriage and partnership. He composed while his acclaimed, professional pianist-wife introduced his works to the public.
Piano Concerto in a minor, first movement
This movement was actually composed originally as a Fantasie and is a fantasy in structure. Early in the movement a poetic melody is introduced by the wind instruments and taken over by the piano. This theme is expanded and transformed and may be regarded as a second theme. The fantasia section follows this with an extended cadenza for the piano leading to a coda that makes use of the main theme.
JEAN (JAN) SIBELIUS
1865 — 1957
Symphony No. 5, op. 82, in Eb major 1915, 1918
Son of musically trained parents, the 5-year-old Sibelius began experimenting with harmonies and melodies on the piano. By age 14 his interest had shifted to the violin, saying, “The piano does not sing as does the violin.” A lover of both nature and the violin, young Sibelius often took to the woods and spent hours trying to duplicate the sounds of nature on his violin.
He entered Helsinki’s Institute of Music, soon outgrowing its limited offerings and he accepted a grant to study in Berlin and Vienna. During this time he realized his instrumental proficiencies were too limited to reach the level needed for a concert violinist’s career. Disappointed, he moved to compositional studies where his aptitude was recognized as exceptional. After 1900 he received a stipend from the Finnish government to devote himself exclusively to composing.
Sibelius’ works display a deep devotion to his country by his images of huge blackish pine trees, windy, icy landscapes and the melancholy, silent images of fjords and forests. He also paid homage to the sounds and rhythms of Finnish folk songs, but his most famous composition is the nationalistic Finlandia, a patriotic response to oppression under Czarist Russia.
Finland awarded Sibelius national hero status and the composer returned the honor by creating seven symphonies, one concerto, a collection of tone poems, chamber and choral music, and incidental music for plays.
In order for the composer to work undistracted, the Finnish government provided him a small life-long pension in 1897. For the next 28 years he composed and concertized throughout Europe and America but at age 60 he ceased composing for reasons never disclosed and was musically silent until his death in 1957.
Symphony No. 5
Written in the second year of World War I, the symphony was finished at a time of great difficulty for the composer. The annual grant had lost its purchasing power, and in order to put food on the table and provide home heat, the composer had to do “hack work.” Fortunately, the government came through with a 1915 commission for Symphony No. 5.
The First Movement is built of germinal ideas and developed from embryo to full growth as the work progresses. The first idea is an ascending theme for horn, and the second is a stark motive for the woodwinds against quivering strings. The third motive is a bright, triumphant passage for 3 horns.
A Scherzo Movement with a lilting theme by woodwinds follows without pause from the first movement. The music gains in momentum until it erupts in a climax of shattering force.
Two major themes dominate the Third Movement — a lyrical one by violas, followed by horns in a climax of powerful dimensions.
Steven Errante, conductor
Unless indicated, all program notes are researched and written by Joan Olsson.