BARBER: Third Essay for Orchestra, Op. 47

by Walter Simmons



Third Essay for Orchestra, Op. 47,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 composed the Third Essay for Orchestra during the summer of 1978, and its premiere took place on September 14, 1978 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. Zubin Mehta conducted the New York Philharmonic. ……. The work is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, euphonium, tuba, percussion, two harps, piano, 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.)

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 — the Adagio, Knoxville, the First and Second Essays, the Violin Concerto, “School for Scandal” Overture, and the Piano Sonata — 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 works that had barely been noticed at all — the late cantata The Lovers and the Third Essay among the most notable — were performed and recorded and found to be of unforeseen merit. The Symphony No. 2, withdrawn by the composer, was re-examined and found to be quite impressive. And 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. Yet many misconceptions still remain. Among them is the frequently encountered statement that Barber ’s musical style remained essentially unchanged throughout his career. To the contrary, greater familiarity reveals the presence of three loosely distinct style-periods.

The first phase extends up through about 1942, and includes most of the works for which Barber is best known. This music is characterized by a rather genteel, high-toned lyricism, with straightforward rhythm, consonant harmony, and clear textures—what the average listener means by “beautiful.” The second period lasts from the early 1940s to the early 1950s, and constitutes something of a period of “experimentation,” when Barber tried his hand at incorporating elements that other composers were exploring successfully: deliberate Americanisms (Excursions, Knoxville), a striving for monumentality (Second Essay, Symphony No. 2), a sophisticated insouciance in the manner of Poulenc (Op. 18 Songs, Mélodies passagères), and, most of all, a Stravinskian Neoclassicism (Medea, Capricorn Concerto). The third, longest, least-understood, but — in many ways — richest period comprises the music written after about 1952. These works integrate quintessentially Barberian elegiac lyricism with some of the elements explored during the 1940s, but in a more personal and distinctive way. There is also a new emphasis on pure mood-painting, particularly of a rather sensuous, languid, even decadent nature, with less symmetrical, more chromatic thematic ideas, more complex, heterogeneous textures, and less regular phraseology, all resulting in greater emotional complexity.

Interestingly, each of Barber’s three Essays falls into one of these style-periods. Barber used the term Essay for Orchestra to identify these relatively short and concise works, dramatic in character, but shaped abstractly through the development of a small number of thematic ideas.

The Third Essay was commissioned by Audrey Sheldon, a wealthy admirer of Barber, who committed suicide before the work’s premiere. Composed during the summer of 1978, the Essay was first performed as part of Zubin Mehta’s debut concert as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Barber made some small revisions after its premiere.

The work opens rather quizzically, with 27 measures of percussion only, during which an irregular rhythmic motif is introduced. As the other instruments enter, a rather jagged melodic contour is added to the rhythmic motif, which bounces down and up the orchestra, picking up substance and momentum, as other tiny figures appear. All this proves to be introductory psychological stage-setting, as the atmosphere is gradually transformed to a more intimate mood of sultry sensuality, almost as if a camera has zoomed in from a panoramic view to focus on the protagonists of a torrid love scene. This scene — the main body of the Essay — is built around four lyrical ideas, all derived from the rhythm and/or the melodic shapes of the motifs heard in the introductory section. The first three are heard in relatively quick succession:  The first is introduced by the strings, marked appassionato; the second is presented by the euphonium, a baritone-voiced relative of the tuba; the third, which emerges as the work’s main melodic idea, is first heard as a sort of rippling melody in the violins and flutes; the fourth, yearning in character, is introduced a little later by the English horn, accompanied by the harps. Interspersed with occasional reminders of the more angular rhythmic and melodic motifs heard during the introduction, these ideas writhe in and around each other, gradually building in intensity. Finally, the third idea reaches a climax in the full orchestra, marked “with exaltation.” This climax has barely abated, when the tempo increases, and the jagged material from the introduction reappears, bringing the work to an almost brusque conclusion.

Notes by Walter Simmons

Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic who specializes in 20th-century music. He is a contributor to Fanfare, 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)

Compact Discs

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)