by Walter Simmons
Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17,by Samuel Barber
Samuel Osborne Barber II was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on March 9, 1910, and died in New York City on January 23, 1981. He completed the Second Essay for Orchestra in March of 1942, and its premiere took place on April 16, 1942 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Bruno Walter conducted the New York Philharmonic. ……. The work is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, percussion, and strings.
The career of Samuel Barber is a fascinating illustration of the rise and fall of musical fashion. The son of a physician, Barber grew up in an affluent Philadelphia suburb, within a nurturant family environment sympathetic to his childhood ambition to become a composer. His mother’s sister was the noted contralto Louise Homer; her husband was Sidney Homer, a composer whose many art songs were quite well known in their day. Until his death in 1953, Homer provided encouragement and counsel to Barber, guiding him to follow the truth of his own artistic impulses rather than offering overt compositional advice.
Barber was extraordinarily fortunate in finding favor with generous and influential benefactors early on. Entering Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute at 14, he soon became a favorite of its founder Mary Louise Curtis Bok, and studied piano, voice, composition, and conducting with distinguished members of the Curtis faculty. There he also met Gian Carlo Menotti, the composer who became his intimate companion for most of his life. As a Curtis student Barber composed some of the works — among them the Serenade for strings, Dover Beach, Overture to “The School for Scandal,” and the Cello Sonata—that are still heard regularly today.
Barber’s music began to win awards and prizes before he reached the age of 20, and by the time he turned 30, his works had been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic. In 1938 Arturo Toscanini led the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the First Essay for Orchestra and the Adagio for Strings, an arrangement of the slow movement of his string quartet. (The Adagio soon became Barber’s most popular piece, and today is the single most widely performed American concert work.)
Thus Barber’s reputation was well established when, at 32, he was asked by Bruno Walter for a work to be performed in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the New York Philharmonic. Barber showed him the newly completed score of his Second Essay for Orchestra, and Walter agreed to give the premiere within a month. Before the end of the year, it was performed again, this time by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy.
During the years that followed, Barber continued to achieve auspicious successes too numerous to list. Among the most notable were his music for Martha Graham’s Cave of the Heart (later called Medea) in 1946, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, written the following year at the request of soprano Eleanor Steber (and probably his most highly regarded work), a Piano Sonata first performed by Vladimir Horowitz in 1950, and Vanessa, a full-length opera with libretto by Menotti, produced by the Metropolitan Opera in 1958 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize that same year.
However, by around 1960, the melodic, emotionally expressive music upon which Barber’s musical identity — and success — had been based, was considered passé. Now music designed deliberately to thwart easy access, concerned more with structural complexity than with emotional expression, drew the attention of influential spokesmen. Indeed, Barber’s very success and the apparent ease with which it was won marked him as a member of the “establishment,” a beneficiary of bourgeoiscomplacency, and his music was scorned and derided. The culminating moment was the 1966 opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, a grand event of the cultural aristocracy for which Barber had been commissioned to compose a new opera. The result, Antony and Cleopatra, with staging and libretto by Franco Zeffirelli and with Leontyne Price in the title role, proved to be a colossal, highly publicized disaster — much, though not all, of which was laid at the composer’s feet. Unaccustomed to such contemptuous treatment, Barber fell into a severe depression, from which he probably never recovered.
During the remaining 15 years of his life, Barber completed only eight more compositions, all but one of quite modest dimensions. These were ignored or given short shrift by the critical press. The general consensus was that Barber had lived beyond his time and lost his creative drive, none of his later works fulfilling the promise offered by the successes of his twenties and thirties.
But by 1980, the tide had begun to turn, and accessibility was up for reconsideration. Within months of his death in 1981, there was a renewed interest in Barber’s music. Works that had an established foothold in the repertoire were seized upon by the most celebrated soloists and conductors. Works that seemed to have fallen by the wayside were dusted off for revival. And later works that had barely been noticed at all were performed and recorded and found to be of unforeseen merit. Most notable of all, the infamous Antony and Cleopatra, revised during the 1970s with Menotti’s help, was mounted at the Spoleto Festival in 1983 with considerable success and subsequently recorded, giving the opera a new lease on life. The reassessment of Barber’s music is still ongoing, but what is already clear is this: Barber’s entire output is well on the way to becoming part of the standard, actively performed repertoire; there is no other American composer of concert music of whom this can be said.
Samuel Barber’s early music, including most of the works for which he is best known, is characterized by a rather genteel, high-toned lyricism, with straightforward rhythm, consonant harmony, and clear textures — what the average listener means by “beautiful.” But during the early 1940s, he entered something of a period of “experimentation,” trying his hand at incorporating elements into his music that other composers were exploring successfully. The Second Essay, completed in 1942, might be seen as a transitional work, written just as Barber was entering this new phase. Its lyrical primacy, solemn tone, and clarity of harmony, rhythm, and texture are characteristic of his earlier works. However, the pentatonic structure of the main theme, and its emphasis on the intervals of the fourth and fifth, give it an American flavor — devices new to Barber, but used by a number of other composers during this period. In addition, its breadth of utterance and reach for grandeur link it to many other American symphonic works of the 1940s. The mood of the times was reflected in a comment made by critic Donald Fuller, published in the influential periodical Modern Music shortly after the work’s premiere: “[The Second Essay]is the best of this composer’s work to date. I think Barber has been reading his Copland and Harris scores and it has been good for him. The horizon has also broadened, and he now appears capable of real thematic invention.”
Barber used the term Essay for Orchestra to identify works that were relatively short and concise, dramatic in character, yet shaped abstractly through the development of a small number of thematic ideas. The First Essay was composed in 1937, and the Second followed five years later. He returned once more to the Essayconcept 36 years later, for his last completed work.
The Second Essay has become one of Barber’s most popular orchestral works. Its most remarkable features are the wide range of emotional expression and the wealth of developmental elaboration accomplished within the scope of ten minutes. Its structure comprises three main sections: a sort of “prologue,” followed by a scherzo-like developmental section, which leads to a fervent, hymnlike apotheosis.
The opening section presents the work’s two main themes: first, the pentatonic theme, with its “searching” quality, introduced by the flute, picked up by the bass clarinet, and then elaborated by the rest of the orchestra. The music gradually becomes more animated, leading to the presentation of the second thematic idea, first heard in the violas, followed by the oboe, accompanied by a restless, repeated-note accompaniment in the flutes and clarinets. The energy level of the music continues to increase, as the second idea is developed. A stentorian restatement of the first theme in the horns, accompanied by rapid repetitions in the timpani, cellos, and basses, signals the end of the first section.
The second section follows on the heels of a loud orchestral chord, as the clarinet and bassoon begin a skittish fugato based on the opening pentatonic theme, now transformed into a rapid triplet rhythmic pattern. Soon the second theme is added to the nervous polyphonic tapestry, and the two ideas undergo considerable development. Finally, the themes are heard — in reverse order — closer to their original guise, as the tempo broadens, forming a transition to the third main section.
The concluding section is based on a third thematic idea, actually hinted at barely noticeably by the brasses toward the end of the first section. This hymnlike theme begins softly but richly in the strings, gradually building in intensity, as the trumpets and horn add the opening pentatonic theme into the fabric. The hymn finally culminates in a triumphant affirmation whose sense of monumentality is remarkable for a work of such modest proportions.
Notes by Walter Simmons
Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic who specializes in 20th-century music. He is a contributor to Fanfare and The New Grove, and a recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music criticism.
For further exploration:
Barbara B. Heyman. Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)
Music of Samuel Barber (Adagio for Strings, Three Essays for Orchestra, Medea’s Dance of Vengeance, Overture to “The School for Scandal”); Saint Louis SO, Slatkin, cond.; EMI Classics CDC-49463
Barber: Prayers of Kierkegaard, The Lovers; Chicago SO and Chorus, Schenck, cond.; Koch International Classics 3-7125-2H1
Roberta Alexander Sings Samuel Barber (Andromache’s Farewell, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Antony and Cleopatra [excerpts], Vanessa [excerpts], Three Songs); Netherlands Radio PO, de Waart, cond.; Etcetera KTC-1145
Complete Songs of Samuel Barber; C. Studer, sop., T. Hampson, bar., J. Browning, piano, Emerson St. Qt.; Deutsche Grammophon 435 867-2 (2 discs)