Violin Concerto, 2nd movement, by Samuel Barber (1939)
This Remembrance Sunday, take some time to switch off from “broadcast” mode and enjoy a few moments of quiet reflection
The second movement (Andante) of Samuel Barber’s violin concerto, Op. 14, performed by Hilary Hahn with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under Hugh Wolff.
As Michael Steinberg summarises in programme notes for the San Francisco Symphony:
The Andante begins with another inspired melody, this one given to the oboe. With touching tact, Barber lets the oboist bask in that glory, for the violin enters and occupies itself with quite different, more rhapsodic material; only at the recapitulation does the violin take the oboe theme, singing it molto espressivo low on the G-string. The coda, one of Barber’s most beautiful pages, is one of the products of the revision.
Listen to the whole piece here.
Now seems to be a particularly good time to enjoy the music of a quintessentially American composer. What were Samuel Barbers’ own personal political views? Would he be a Clintonite or a Trumpist if he were still alive and lived through the 2016 presidential election campaign? Would he believe that we are Stronger Together, or want to Make America Great Again? Would we consider Barber acceptably progressive or deeply intolerant by today’s standards?
Who cares? Today we know Barber as an American composer, not as a progressive or a conservative. Some things – like art, at its best – transcend our fierce little contemporary political debates. A point well worth keeping in mind on a day in which we recall that we are very much part of history, but blessed to be burdened with the the problems of 2016 rather than those of 1916 or 1936.
Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:
Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.
Something suitably brooding for a cloudy, unrelentingly grey autumnal Sunday
The third and fourth movements (Passacaglia and Burlesque) from Violin Concerto no. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by Hilary Hahn with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Mariss Jansons.
Michael Steinberg gives us this analysis:
Almost anyone, seeing a piano reduction of the third movement, would suppose the fanfares at the beginning to be trumpet music. It is in fact the horns who play them, another instance of a certain muted quality. This movement, the concerto’s great center of gravity, is a passacaglia, a series of variations over a repeated bass. Like his friend Britten, but arriving at the idea independently, Shostakovich found the passacaglia with its stubborn reiterations to be a marvelous device for creating slow movements of great mass and power.
The bass here is long—seventeen measures of Andante—beginning and ending on the keynote, F.
Here is an outline of what happens:
Variation 1: Low strings play the bass, horns add stern fanfares, timpani support both lines. (In most passacaglias the composer introduces the bass by itself, but here Shostakovich in effect starts with the first variation.)
Variation 2: English horn, clarinets, and bassoons play a chorale while bassoon and tuba take the bass.
Variation 3: The bass is in low strings again and the solo violin, after its first minutes of respite in the concerto, enters with an expressive counterpoint.
Variation 4: The bass stays in the low strings, English horn and bassoon repeat what the violin played in the previous variation, and the solo violin continues its meditation.
Variation 5: A solo horn plays the bass, the violin becomes more passionate and forceful, low strings add a new counterpoint, woodwinds bring back their chorale.
Variation 6: All the horns, tuba, and pizzicato low strings play the bass, the violin adding increasingly impassioned commentary in triplets.
Variation 7: With a rich string accompaniment, the solo violin plays the passacaglia bass in fortissimo octaves.
Variation 8: The bass goes back to bassoon and tuba, the violin adding a song, molto espressivo, on its lowest string.
Variation 9: Timpani and pizzicato low strings take the bass, the violin recalls the horn fanfares of the first variation.
With timpani, cellos, and basses on a long-sustained F, the music dissolves. The violin plays wide-ranging arpeggios and, as the orchestra falls silent, begins an immense cadenza. This is the bridge to the finale.
The violin begins with the fanfares from the passacaglia. As speed and intensity build ideas from the first two movements recur as well. After scales in fifths and octaves, the orchestra comes crashing back in for the Burlesca, a torrential finale.