Saturday, November 6, 2010

Iso Briselli

Iso Briselli (Isaak Briselli) was a Russian (Ukrainian) violinist born on October 20, 1912 (Heifetz was 11 years old.)  Although he concertized for over two decades, he is remembered (as is Franz Clement) for having commissioned a famous concerto – Samuel Barber’s violin concerto.  He began studies at age 3 and while still a child studied with Peter Stolyarsky before his family moved to Berlin (1922) where he began his studies with Carl Flesch.  Two years later, when Flesch moved to the U.S. to teach at the new Curtis Institute (Philadelphia), he encouraged Briselli to go with him.  He arrived in the U.S. - together with the Flesch family - in December of 1924.  Briselli entered Curtis during the winter of 1925 and thus became part of the very first class, at age 13, to enter Curtis.  After Flesch left Curtis (1928), Briselli studied with Leopold Auer and Efrem Zimbalist, among others.  He graduated in May, 1934.  Soon after Briselli arrived in the U.S., a rich Philadelphian – Samuel Fels - informally adopted Briselli and became his patron as well.  Briselli made his debut in 1926 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Artur Rodzinski, playing the first Paganini concerto.  He was 14 years old.  In 1939, Fels engaged (for $1000) the unknown Barber – who was a fellow Curtis student, although much older - to write a concerto for Briselli.  The concerto was finished in December of 1939.  The myth about Briselli finding the third movement of the concerto too difficult started with Barber and a writer by the name of Nathan Broder.  It was documented later on by Barbara Heyman, a Samuel Barber biographer (1992), that the story was wholly untrue.  Thousands of historically incorrect concert program notes (and liner notes for albums) have been written since Broder’s false story first came out.  Although Barber knew the true facts, he never did anything to set the record straight.  At the time of the commission, Briselli was already a brilliant violinist who regularly played the works of Paganini, Wieniawski, Sarasate, Vieuxtemps, Ysaye, Bruch, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Dvorak, and all the rest.  It is logical to suppose that the third movement of the Barber would have posed no serious challenges.  Indeed, Briselli never said the movement was too difficult or unplayable.  He objected to the music itself – it did not musically fit the other two movements and it was not an appropriate finale and not grand enough – speaking from a traditional point of view, it was too weak.  It is interesting that critics who first heard the concerto agreed with Briselli’s opinion, though they did not know it at the time.  Briselli never played the concerto in public.  Briselli stopped concertizing in the mid 1940s to devote his time to the various Fels Fund philanthropic projects.  He died on April 9, 2005, at age 92. 


  1. This is post number 250. Of those, approximately 200 are micro biographies of famous and not-so-famous violinists.

  2. I was delighted to have this blog forwarded to me. As the daughter of Iso Briselli, I am always heartened when I find a correct history made available to the interested public. You may be interested to know that the web site dealing with the background of the concerto has just been revised and includes newly discovered letters and responses between Sam Barber and Mr.Fels,as well as the appearance of another character in the drama, heretofore unknown, whose unhelpful influence on the young violinist and interference with the composer led to the concerto's outcome with which we are familiar. Please visit

  3. Susanna, thank you for your post. I did visit the site you referenced - it is fascinating. I am sure you must be very, very proud of your father, maestro Briselli.

  4. Hello,
    Just found your blog ; congrats for this biography. I'd just like to correct one point : in 1939, Barber was very far from being "unknown". He was considered, on the contrary, as one of the most talented composers in the US... The year before, his "Adagio for Strings" had been premiered by Toscanini to great acclaim - and publicity. Choosing him was a smart move from Fels to promote Briselli's career.


    1. Thank you. I like your comment.