Samuel Barber's Essay for Orchestra, Op. 12, completed in the first half of 1938, is an orchestral work in one movement. It was given its first performance by Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony Orchestra on November 5, 1938 in New York in a radio broadcast concert in which the composer's Adagio for Strings saw its first performance. It lasts around 8 minutes and is dedicated "To C.E." The essay is now known as the First Essay for Orchestra after Barber wrote his Second Essay for Orchestra in 1942. He also wrote a Third Essay in 1978.
Barber visited Toscanini several times in 1933 at his villa on Isola di San Giovanni in Lago Maggiore, and the world-famous conductor told Barber that he would like to perform one of his works. This was a great honor for the young composer, particularly because Toscanini rarely performed works by contemporary or American composers. Barber presented his work to Toscanini in the spring of 1938, together with the score of the Adagio for Strings (Heyman 1992, 162–66).
The First Essay resembles but is not equivalent to a first movement of a symphony (Heyman 1992, 166).
Besides the world premiere in 1938, Toscanini also performed the music on January 24, 1942, in a special War Bonds performance that was preserved on transcription discs; Toscanini never made a commercial recording of the music. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded the music in 1942 for RCA Victor in the Academy of Music. Neeme Järvi with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, and Daniel Kawka with the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI have all recorded all three of Barber's Essays.
- Friedwald, Russell Edward. 1957. "A Formal and Stylistic Analysis of the Published Music of Samuel Barber". Ph. D. diss. Ames: Iowa State University.
- Pettis, Ashley. 1938. "Important American Music". The New York Times (November 13).
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) composed his first piece, a 23-measure piano composition in C minor called Sadness, at the age of seven. At the age of nine he wrote this precocious letter:
Dear Mother: I have written this to tell you my worrying secret. Now don’t cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now without any nonsense. To begin with I was not meant to be an athlet [sic]. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure. I’ll ask you one more thing.—Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football.—Please—Sometimes I’ve been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very).
Monday’s post, which included an excerpt from the Violin Concerto, demonstrated the extent to which Samuel Barber’s music goes beyond the famous Adagio for Strings. Now, let’s listen to Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17, a ten-minute, titanic tour-de-force sketched at the same time as the Violin Concerto and completed on March 15, 1942. (Barber received his draft notice for the War a little over six months later).
As the title implies, Barber’s orchestral “essay” makes a rigorously focused musical argument. We get a sense of quiet, seething energy in the opening flute solo, set against the backdrop of tuba and bass drum. The piece “awakens” as the motive is passed to the bass clarinet, English horn, oboe, and other instruments. A restless second theme is introduced by the violas. Soon, the full titanic strength of this music becomes apparent. A playful fugue echoes the crisp, sparkling orchestration and irrepressible counterpoint of Barber’s German contemporary, Paul Hindemith. (Listen to this moment, in particular, for the Hindemith reference). The fugue climaxes with a statement of the opening motive, first in the trombones, then the horns, and finally the trumpets. Notice the way this motive occurs, simultaneously, at different speeds, a trick which also occurs in the furious final seconds of the passacaglia in Barber’s Symphony in One Movement. One of my favorite moments in Barber’s Second Essay comes in the final bars where the broad majesty of the full orchestra evaporates suddenly, and we’re left with the struggling vulnerability of the high strings. It’s the same vibrant intensity we hear in Adagio for Strings. Then, the brass enters with a final, harmonically ambiguous resolution which provides one last terrifying/exhilarating glimpse of the raw, titanic power at the heart of this piece.
Here is the Atlanta Symphony’s 1992 recording with conductor Yoel Levi:
- Barber: Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Yoel Levi iTunes
- David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony released another great recording of this piece in 1992, the same year as the recording above. iTunes
About Timothy Judd
A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.
The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.
A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.
In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.
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