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Samuel Barber

Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17

Samuel Barber had strong literary interests in several languages. His choice of song texts ranged from medieval lyrics to Kierkegaard, Joyce, Rilke, and Neruda. His Essays for orchestra (there are three) really pose a metaphor for the handling of musical themes. The Second Essay, in particular, states an initial idea (like a writer's thesis) and develops it into three major themes. Of his Essays, critics generally consider this the most tightly-composed, and more than one writer has compared it to a symphony, because so much happens in its ten minutes.

The Essay begins with a quiet fanfare idea in a solo flute, emphasizing tonic, dominant, and flattened seventh. Gradually, the orchestra takes up the idea, but the strings get hold of it and turn it into a more agitated second theme. The entire orchestra joins in, playing with both the fanfare and the second theme. This leads to a quick, acerbic fugue based on the fanfare, developed with wit and power. Eventually, he combines all three themes in a huge climax, and rounds off the work with an extended, massive coda based on the fanfare.

Completed in 1942 (though begun many years earlier), the Second Essay was premiered by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic. Koussevitzky, Szell, and Ormandy were among its early champions, and the work was quickly taken into the repertory of most major orchestras.

Copyright © 1995 by Steve Schwartz.