Given the lush, lyrical, Romantic propensities of Samuel Barber's music, it should come as no surprise that the composer achieved great success in that most Romantic of genres, the solo instrumental concerto. Indeed, Barber wrote a concerto for each of the "Big Three" concerto instruments: piano, violin, and cello, producing a trio of works that have earned a secure place in the standard repertoire. With an extensive timbral palette and the opportunity for virtuosic display at his disposal, Barber made full use of the concerto's possibilities, from exquisitely colored, tender lyricism to splashy, breathless pyrotechnics.
Excepting a now-lost piano concerto the composer wrote at the age of 20, the Violin Concerto was Barber's first essay in the genre. The story of its creation and its delayed premiere was misrepresented for decades after the publication of Nathan Broder's biography of Barber in 1954. Soap tycoon Samuel Fels offered a substantial fee to Barber to write a work for the young Russian-born violinist Iso Briselli. What happened after Barber delivered the first two movements to Briselli was clarified in the early 21st century when letters from all parties were compared together. After seeing the beauty of those movements, Briselli suggested the finale might show more of the violin's virtuosic possibilities. Barber complied, producing a brief moto perpetuo of under four minutes' duration, less than half as long as either of the other movements. The violinist felt the movement simply did not fit with the other two, not that it was too difficult or unplayable as the story had been told. There were never any hard feelings between the men. Briselli relinquished his rights to premiere the work, and Fels allowed Barber to keep the portion of the commission he had already been paid. The work was successfully premiered on February 7, 1941, by Albert Spalding and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.
Although the concerto's Allegro is marked by a predominantly lyrical, even vernal, quality, the movement is hardly free of the conflict and high drama typifying the concerto tradition. The flowing, organic material that opens the movement is contrasted by a short, distinctive iambic rhythmic figure that recurs in various guises throughout. The characteristically lyrical Andante, which, like so many of Barber's slow movements, possesses a melancholic, elegiac quality, is tinged with a certain mercurial moodiness. The final perpetual-motion Presto is a breathless, nonstop whirlwind that races by in a steady, virtually uninterrupted rhythmic flow illuminated by brilliant flashes of color.