Barber was a corporal on inactive duty in the U.S. Army Air Force when he undertook the Cello Concerto, in January 1945, commissioned by John Nicholas Brown of Providence, RI, for the Russian-born cellist Raya Garbousova. Serge Koussevitzky, celebrating his 20th season as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, masterminded the project, even facilitating Barber's discharge from the military. The new concerto enjoyed a greater success on tour in Carnegie Hall than in its premiere on April 5, 1946, in Boston's Symphony Hall. New York City critics were lavish in their praise, and later that spring gave the work their Fifth Annual Award as "exceptional among orchestral compositions performed for the first time [here] during the concert season." Yet Barber was not fully satisfied by the work and -- as with many of his pieces -- made numerous changes between 1947 and publication in 1950, most of them in the opening Allegro. Three decades later he considered simplifying the solo part, to encourage more performances, but prolonged illness prevented any further changes. If the Cello Concerto may never rival the popularity of his 1939 Violin Concerto, it has come abreast of the 1962 Piano Concerto, well ahead of the Capricorn Concerto which immediately preceded it.
The sonata-form Allegro moderato in D minor is half again longer than either succeeding movement, yet all of its thematic materials are encapsulated in the first 25 measures, introduced by the orchestra. It begins with a jagged, metrically irregular, two-bar motif (2/4 + 3/4) that not only recurs but dominates the development section. Immediately after, flute and English horn play a principal theme whose salient feature is a descending scale. This is followed by a triplet figure for bassoon that also takes on structural significance later. Next, violins play a lyrical second theme before the triplets return, then the inaugural motif slightly altered. The soloist enters with a short, not-showy cadenza before the second exposition in which thematic materials are developmentally extended, all of this before the development section proper. The latter ends with a more elaborate solo cadenza, followed by the recapitulation and a coda based on the opening motif.
As Barbara Heyman wrote in The Composer and His Music, the Andante sostenuto slow movement, in C sharp minor, "spins a sad and romantically tender siciliana in canon between the cello and orchestra in a set of free variations." Cello and oboe introduce the principal subject over muted strings, after which the oboe yields to a variety of echoing instruments.
For Heyman the concluding Molto allegro e appassionato, "centering around A minor, [is] a kind of rondo-fantasy [with] a restless theme characterized by a persistently reiterated, descending semitone and an arpeggiated seventh chord." She also notes "interjections of a somber, dirge-like theme (in C minor) over a ground bass." The movement begins and ends as the first did, with a jagged new motif for full orchestra, ending in A major.